Art of Cool: The festival's quest to challenge jazz's genre and gender problems | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Art of Cool: The festival's quest to challenge jazz's genre and gender problems 

Durham singer Eve Cornelious

Photo courtesy of Art of Cool

Durham singer Eve Cornelious

When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival begins later this week, it will quickly express that jazz is just its heritage, not its limit.

On the first night of the two-weekend Goliath event, country star Keith Urban and indie rock crossover kings Wilco will play the big stages. The next six days are loaded with jazz, yes, but they also include No Doubt and Pitbull, Jimmy Buffett and T.I. The event's only rule, it seems, is to buck preconceptions.

On the same day, the Art of Cool Fest will launch its second iteration in Durham. Though presented by a nonprofit with the explicit aim of expanding jazz's audience, the festival itself has avoided genre-specific branding. Instead, it mostly extols the values of the African-American music canon—jazz chief among them—as a source of inspiration.

By doing this, Art of Cool has developed a strong reputation among both upcoming and established jazz and soul artists. It's rapidly become a safehouse for jazz's preservation and innovation. In doing so, it has also become the rare festival where female performers feel like more than a footnote.

"Art of Cool has values that they're sticking to. You can tell by who's coming," explains Durham's six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, Nnenna Freelon. She was among the festival's inaugural headliners. Those values include not trying to control what jazz can be.

"Duke Ellington said that there's good music, and there's the other kind," Freelon continues. "When we get into dogmatic definitions of what is and what isn't jazz, that's a conversation for people who market things. It's not a real music conversation."

New York jazz-soul octet Mad Satta help epitomize Art of Cool's aim to find acts that draw on jazz but don't always play it. Their set is being presented by Revive Music Group, which launched in 2006 as a "genre-bending, creative-concept live-music" production agency. Since then, Revive has emerged as a progressive jazz-advocacy collective by curating shows and even publishing an online magazine, The Revivalist.

Founder Meghan Stabile has seen the conversation about jazz change. Watching Robert Glasper move from an in-demand jazz pianist to someone recording with Kendrick Lamar and Common, she says, was a natural move: "That wasn't a strategy or anything. He just wanted to play other shit."

Art of Cool is an extension of that idea.

"It is a hybrid sensibility," says Stabile. "Art of Cool is only supporting what already exists. They're a platform. These artists are doing this music, regardless. Art of Cool is a place that says, 'Come here, and we'll support you. We'll give you a place to all come together and be a support system.' It doesn't have to be called anything. Fuck calling it jazz; fuck calling it hip-hop."

Perhaps it seems like a new generation of jazz musicians and promoters has a laissez-faire policy—that is, get in where you fit in. But the quest for gender equality, in jazz and at festivals at large, suggests otherwise.

Earlier this month, Freelon received an email from one of her bandmates. "I was at the first press conference when Jazz at the Lincoln Center was formed," it read. "Journalist Lara Pellegrinelli asked artistic director Wynton Marsalis why there were not any women in the band. He smirked and didn't deign to answer."

In 2000, more than a decade later, Pellegrinelli wrote a piece for The Village Voice entitled "Dig Boy Dig," in which the celebrated trombonist defensively answered her questions.

"Are we trying to incorporate women? Yes," he told her. "I'm not thinking about employing more women."

Though 15 years should be enough time for Marsalis to at least think about the topic, Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra still has yet to hire a permanent woman player in its three decades. (Jazz at the Lincoln Center did not respond to a request for comment.)

"To me, it's a human rights issue," says Freelon. "This isn't about some chick who's mad because she can't get a gig in Wynton's band. Women, young women and little girls need to look up on that stage and see somebody they can identify with and say, 'You know what? I can do that.'"

Much the same holds for festivals: After the lineup for this year's Coachella was revealed, Slate reacted with a post titled "Coachella Festival is Still a Boy's Club." Despite jazz's own gender challenges, the Art of Cool has managed to get the balance right. This year, 42 percent of its roster includes female-led acts. Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, by comparison, clock in around 25 percent.

Though neither of this year's main stage headliners are women, two of this year's female performers highlight the core of Art of Cool's inclusiveness. Transcendent vocalist Gretchen Parlato has been heralded among the jazz intelligentsia as one of the genre's godsends. Unsung jazz mesmerizer and N.C. Central University alum Eve Cornelious mirrors the organization's crusade for jazz innovation, preservation and education. Country-soul musician Rissi Palmer, the fierce songwriter Kendra Foster and Moonchild's daring Amber Navran rank among the lineup's standouts, too.

Festival co-founder Cicely Mitchell admits she likes to book female jazz and soul acts, in part, because, like Freelon, she wants young women to imagine themselves on stage one day.

"I love it," she says. "I'll be glad, next year, when we can get more females in bands, female bandleaders, a female drummer—not just a female vocalist. I'll be glad when we get to that point. It's coming."

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