Cicely Mitchell is probably the last person you’d expect to run a music festival: a biostatician by trade and education, she doesn’t play or read music herself; that’s not her thing. For her, music isn’t just about the craft; it’s about the community. That’s why she started Art of Cool, and it’s why she’s pushed it further each year in hopes of bringing in a wider audience, including folks who wouldn’t usually think of jazz as their thing, either.
Mitchell co-founded AOC with Al Strong, a local jazz musician and teacher, after first helping him connect with the music community through social media. It was then that she and Strong saw a need to push the boundaries of jazz locally, especially in Durham, a place she hopes can become as musically cultural as a city like New Orleans. She says the aim of AOC has always been to expand what people think of when they think of jazz and show a wider audience there’s more to it than elevator tunes or the music that played on their parents’ record player. To that end, she’s adopted a quality over quantity approach to AOC’s lineup, choosing to feature just a handful of great bands that each push the limits of traditional jazz and provide a gateway for folks to experience all of what the music and its culture has to offer.
It’s a big undertaking for sure, but for Mitchell it’s all a labor of love. Content in her (also incredibly cool) day job, she set up AOC as a volunteer-run nonprofit, donating her nights and weekends in an effort to give back to the community for which she has so much passion. And as far as whether or not someone who can’t play a note should be capable of leading such a charge for the world of music, Mitchell says that’s a question she’s ever stopped long enough to ask.
“You don’t have to choose between what you love to do and what you have to do,” she says. “You can do it all.”
And in helping create a place where artists and music lovers can come together to enjoy their culture and grow in their craft, it seems like Mitchell might’ve found her thing after all.