With a festival, concerts and marketing, The Art of Cool Project bonds the Triangle jazz scene | Music Feature | Indy Week
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With a festival, concerts and marketing, The Art of Cool Project bonds the Triangle jazz scene 

Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong are at the center of The Art of Cool, an effort to turn the Triangle into a jazz and soul hub.

Photo by Justin Cook

Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong are at the center of The Art of Cool, an effort to turn the Triangle into a jazz and soul hub.

So, this is one of the Triangle's supposed jazz hotbeds?

I'm nestled into a shadow at the end of the bar at Raleigh haunt C. Grace—hell, this place is a spiderweb of shadows—trying to figure out why some claim that the area's ripe for a jazz resurgence and a major festival, to boot. Angie and the Cool Network, an ensemble from town, futzes with their microphones on stage, and I wait. The bar's six other patrons, all sipping daiquiris and New York Sours, don't seem to care that the band is starting a little late.

Cicely Mitchell told me that this was the place to check for jazz in Raleigh. Mitchell is the president of The Art of Cool Project, a steadily metastasizing Durham nonprofit that's producing, promoting and proselytizing jazz in the Triangle. It's quiet for a Thursday, and the band doesn't seem so serious yet. One of the guitarists jokes with his bandmates as he fingers a mellowed-out funk line half lifted from the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money."

But Mitchell knows her stuff, so I'll nurse this Old Fashioned and see what happens.

If you've been to a local concert, picked up an area newspaper in the last year or generally care about music in North Carolina, chances are strong you've seen the Art of Cool brand on a poster, advertisement or Facebook invitation: Here's Art of Cool springing a pop-up concert at an art gallery opening. There's Art of Cool hosting an open jam session for so many musicians they might as well start their own orchestra. And who's that co-sponsoring a Duke or UNC show with that hot band you just read about in The New York Times? Once again, Art of Cool.

Co-founded by Mitchell and trumpeter Al Strong, The Art of Cool Project is devoted to the preservation, protection and promotion of jazz in the Triangle by whatever means necessary. They book concerts large and small, expensive and free. They market the music and host workshops and special events. They serve as a clearinghouse for worldwide talent. And next April, they will launch a large music festival in Durham, the soul, funk, jazz, rhythm & blues upstart counterpart to Hopscotch.

Even though C. Grace is still pretty idle on this Thursday night—though the Cool Network is jamming now, the couple next to me is discussing interest rates over Long Island Iced Teas—the audience is indeed expanding. The project begs the chicken-and-egg question, then: Did The Art of Cool create the current jazz scene, or has the jazz scene coalesced to the point that the project was necessary?

"It's people who were already open to different art forms but didn't realize that this stuff was here," explains pianist, composer and technologist Eric Hirsh. "The Triangle does offer so much of everything that people don't know about. It's like New York."

Hirsh could be the poster child for Triangle jazz performers. He's part of the hip-hop quartet The Beast and directs the 13-piece salsa ensemble Orquesta GarDel. The North Carolina Arts Council gave him a Composer Fellowship last year, a fine complement to his four ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards.

"It seems to be about awareness," he continues. "I think the Triangle is the perfect place to have a progressive music scene. There are venues. There are audiences. But the machine is just not connected. The Art of Cool is only one piece of the puzzle, because you need the entire artistic community to kind of act that way. It's a 5–to–10-year project. But something's finally happening."

In less than three years, The Art of Cool has begun to seed a full-fledged scene with The Art of Cool Festival, a two-day, seven-venue celebration of jazz-influenced music (a wide spectrum, they know) featuring around 20 acts, some of whom could tote Grammys on stage with them. Slated for April 25–26, 2014, the festival will cover a tight footprint of locations in and around downtown Durham, ranging from the lawns of Durham Central Park to the spacious Carolina Theatre. Funk legend and Kinston native Maceo Parker will headline the festival. The 11-piece Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Ensemble will offer a robust tribute concert to Tar Heel jazz gods John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone and Roberta Flack.

It's hard to believe it all started with just one gig, a memory that boggles even Mitchell's and Strong's minds.

"I can barely remember, there's been so much going on," Strong says about the start of The Art of Cool, laughing.

But Mitchell, a statistician by trade, has the facts at hand: "2011, end of the summer. You were the first act over at LabourLove."

Al Strong and Friends played LabourLove Art Gallery at Durham's Golden Belt Arts because they could do more adventurous originals there than at the typical restaurants and bars. The gallery-goers didn't just tolerate the music; they raved over it.

"We really only planned on booking a one-off show at LabourLove," Strong says, "but the owners just loved the concept and the turnout and asked us to piggyback on Third Fridays."

The mathematically minded Mitchell wanted to know why the gallery gig had become a surprise monthly hit. "It was weird how there was a great overlap between those people who were coming out for art and staying over for music, because the price point was $10 to stay and listen to the music," she notes. "So the art crowd was staying and getting turned on to jazz. Also, our crowd was showing up and, on the break, buying art because their price point was affordable."

Mitchell discovered data to explain the overlap as something other than an anomaly. In 2009, The National Endowment for the Arts issued its "Survey of Public Participation in the Arts," a quantitative analysis of audiences for what the NEA terms "benchmark arts performances." The national jazz stats are ugly and, according to the data, getting uglier: In 2002, 10.8 percent of American adults attended at least one jazz show. In 2008, the number fell to 7.8 percent, below 1982 levels for the first time in the survey's history. Jazz audiences were aging, too, with substantially more attendees in the 45–64 range than those below 35. But Mitchell saw a secondary story in the data that explained the success at LabourLove.

"Those people who go to museums and go see art are more likely to go to these benchmark performances, whether it's classical music or jazz," she says. "Also, higher education and having some form of college degree is a kind of risk factor for being turned on to these benchmark arts and cultural events. That's one reason why the American Dance Festival works here even though it's not the dance capital of the world. And Full Frame, too. So, why not jazz? That's the hypothesis behind it all."

Those numbers look different to Hirsh, primarily because the NEA's definition of jazz—and the general population's definition of jazz—is strict and encased in amber, confined to names like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. Musicians of Hirsh's generation may have studied jazz in the conservatory, but they were listening to every genre back in their dorms. When they got together to play, all those musical influences were in the room. Genre doesn't mean as much, or at least isn't a pure thing, in an age of instant and almost infinite availability.

"The new audience doesn't know what jazz is and doesn't care what jazz is," Hirsh says. "They just want to hear good music."

Back at C. Grace, both bartenders are now in constant motion. People stand with their backs to the bar, facing the stage and swaying as Angie does her best Morgana King. I chatter with the interest-rate couple; they came to the club without even checking to see who's playing.

Catrina Godwin owns C. Grace. She readily admits she knows next to nothing about jazz music, and she didn't set out to start a jazz club when her tenants left the basement of her Glenwood Avenue building less than two years ago.

"I was just trying to make a place that I would like to go to, and that specifically women would be comfortable coming into and not feeling intimidated," Godwin says. "I like to dance, but I didn't want a dance club because I think the music controls the crowd. I didn't really go out intending to have a jazz club, but that's what it's turned into."

Godwin notices different listening habits in her crowds: There are the few academic jazz nerds concentrating on the music, and there are the groups of friends who appear to not even know there's a band playing.

"But at the end of the night those people come up to me all the time and say, 'Hey, the band was really good'—people I thought were totally unaware that there was music," she says. "I can't imagine having that bar without having jazz in it."

The Art of Cool has provided the essential lift for Godwin. Not only has Strong played several Art of Cool shows at C. Grace himself, he's also helped book the room. No matter what band he books, more musicians inevitably show up to jam—proclaiming the rise of a strong Triangle jazz scene rather than suggesting it.

If The Art of Cool's jump from lining up stray but well-attended gigs to a full-fledged booking crew was somewhat happenstance, the organization's dedication and hard-core entrepreneurial spirit were not. Those principles have fueled the project's quick jump to nonprofit status and music festival promoter.

"We started realizing, 'This thing has legs. Let's get a little more organized,'" Mitchell recalls.

Third Fridays at LabourLove led to First Fridays at Raleigh's Flanders Gallery. Artists began to ask to participate in The Art of Cool's programming, essentially seeking out the organizational seal of approval. Mitchell and Strong teamed with ReverbNation, a Durham-based social media platform for bands, to standardize a submission process. The pool of jurors that sorts through those applications includes Branford Marsalis, Nnenna Freelon and Phonte Coleman. Their first year, they received 1,200 entries; last year, they received 3,140.

Meanwhile, The Art of Cool won Durham's Startup Stampede, which led to a 60-day entrepreneur boot camp during which every dent was hammered out of their concept and pitch.

"We're the only nonprofit ever to be in it, and at the end, we won the pitch competition against all the for-profit cool kids," Mitchell says with satisfaction. "They taught us how to pitch and go talk to corporations to get backing for the festival, so we did pretty good in our first round of funding. Now we're at the Kickstarter point. We believe that Durham will get it done."

Their Kickstarter campaign ends Aug. 5; with six days to go, more than 150 people have pledged their support, and the organization has just broken the halfway mark of its $25,000 goal.

They're not putting all of their saxophones in one basket, though, as there are plenty of Art of Cool offerings scheduled, even during the remainder of the summer. Hirsh's group The Beast played in its big-band configuration (with Strong on trumpet) at American Tobacco on Independence Day. This Thursday at Motorco, The Art of Cool hosts the Zombie Jazz Apocalypse, a night of "genre mashups" from Zoocru, directed by Strong and Hirsh, and Zombies Ate My Jazz, a local collective of jazz and indie rock musicians. Grammy-winning bassist Derrick Hodge plays Casbah on Aug. 7, while Australian electro-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote visits The Pour House in Raleigh later in the month. All of these shows are supported by The Art of Cool, which wants jazz in the Triangle to be about more than one weekend of the year.

"Everything is kind of falling into place," Strong offers. "This is what we wanted to do."

Hirsh echoes that sentiment.

"When I was here in college, thinking about staying in the area, I wanted it to be like this. I knew that the kind of music I made wasn't the kind that people already listened to or that the radio stations played. I couldn't think of any room that would book me," he explains.

"But that's way before I realized how awesome Kings and Motorco and the Casbah are, because they book all kinds of music, including improvisational jazz. And when I was looking for some group or person to be more media-minded beyond just one band, The Art of Cool Project was the first to take a real stab at that. So the pieces are starting to happen. There's starting to be momentum."

The answer to the chicken-and-egg question, then? Both.

My Old Fashioned is done, but Angie is singing "Take Hold of Me," so I think I'll hang around for a while.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Birth of a Cool."

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