When we think of music festivals, our minds usually go to the larger and most trendy ones — Coachella, Pitchfork, Made in America , Lollapalooza etc… — but there are some cultural gems in our own backyard that we may not even be aware of. Allow us to introduce you to the Art of Cool Festival, taking place April 28th – April 30th in North Carolina.
Founded in Durham, NC and spearheaded by jazz trumpeter and educator, Albert Strong IV and Tennessee-native biostatistician Cicely Mitchell- also DrPH of Al Strong Music Productions, the festival is on a mission to present, promote and preserve jazz-influenced music. Carrying a cool line-up of fresh (Alex Isley, Kenneth Whalum, Rapsody ), classic (Common, Goapele, Kindred The Family Soul, Just Blaze) and legendary (George Clinton, Rakim) talent, this Southern mix of music gumbo should be on the top of everyone’s list to attend.
Ahead of the festival’s kick off, EBONY caught up with Mitchell, and discussed creating in the city of Durham, breaking traditions when it comes to introducing millennials to various styles of jazz and being one of the few Black women in the festival business.
EBONY : What led you to create the Art of Cool Festival?
Cicely Mitchell: The festival is one of the programs included in our non-profit, the Art of Cool project. The mission is to expand the audience for jazz. It was started by myself and another co-founder, Al Strong, a trumpet player and educator here in Durham, We started it to get more people to come out to jazz events. We started finding that we could get a younger audience [to come] out if we mixed it with R&B,Soul, and Hip-Hop. So we really try to hook people through the festival as an introduction to jazz by way of samples. Most of the old-school hip-hop is from jazz samples – that’s our intent. We started it to get the younger audience out because the stigma with jazz is that it’s for old people and it’s gonna die out. We take a very nontraditional approach to getting people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be jazz heads to become jazz heads over time.
EBONY: The lineup is very diverse. Common, Rakim, George Clinton and upcomers like Masego and Nao. That mixture of mainstream, legacy, and indie artists was that intentional?
CM: Yes. We always have one legendary artist and this year that’s George Clinton. And then we try to have a few mainstream acts that make sense for AOC, so Rakim and Common make sense because they come from the golden age of hip-hop and they’re jazz lovers. You can hear that in their sound. And then we turn it over to all the newbies that our pushing the music forward. We believe in a jazz centric way which is a little different from most traditional jazz festivals where they book all the legends and the names with only a few of the newbies. We try to book it in reverse.
EBONY: There’s a constant theme of breaking tradition through the setup of the festival – why do you think that’s important for your mission?
CM: I think it’s important because as a young representer, we need to break out of the traditional way of trying to connect the music and the genre to the audience. In order to capture a millennial audience, most jazz festivals in the South are outdoors, on the lawn, and one stage. What we found is, if you program it to where you hop around from place to place, and there’s several different things going on all at one time, that is an extra value for people to get excited and get the music. That’s the whole point of Art of Cool: to have people change their minds about the genre by breaking tradition and not doing things the way other festivals do it. We try to present it in a modern, mainstream festival format.
EBONY: Tell me more about your role as President and Co-Founder. Have you discovered any specific or unique challenges to your role? I know that you may be one of, if not the only, co-founders that is a Black woman for a major festival.
CMl: My hat is project management, community relations and development, and fundraising. I’m the keeper of the budgets and the line items. My background is actually in statistics so I’m more of the math and money behind the festival and managing the organization and logistic structure of the festival. The other co-founder is more of the music director and we brought Yusuf on this year to round out more of the hip -hop and alternative soul acts. We have a team of people and I feel like I’m the project manager over a lot of people who are experts in their department.
EBONY: Have you found it to be difficult being in the festival industry as a woman?
CM: I think in anything that appears to be a “boy’s club” there have been challenges. I think we’re starting to build a network of women presenters in general. And there are a couple of ladies in our area who are inspired to start their own smaller, hip-hop festivals and I try to mentor them. When I started, it wasn’t like, I wanted to be the first to do this. I just looked up and I was one of the few to do it. It’s been challenging but it hasn’t been something that would make me want to give up – it’s more about inspiring other women to do it. A lot of the festivals aren’t even African American dominated – that can be a challenge too. The city that we’re doing it in, has been very supportive and our city is about 60 percent Black. It was the perfect place to try to do something like this.
EBONY: What do you hope people take away from Art Of Cool?
CM: I want people to see this festival as one of the upcoming festivals where if you want to know what’s going on with jazz, soul and alternative hip-hop music this is one that you put on your radar. We were the first to bring Anderson .Paak here, The Internet, Kamasi Washington – we want people to say “hey if you want to know more about people in different genres, this is the festival you go to”. We also want people to fall in love with Durham. It’s an up and coming city and it’s kind scrappy. Austin and has a really big tech and innovation culture. We also built an innovation conference into our festival. We’re really trying to build this to be a Black SXSW feeling with a more southern hospitality style. We want it to have a homecoming vibe – very warm and inviting, like a family reunion.
Grab your tickets to the Art of Cool, in Durham, North Carolina from April 28-April 30th. See the full lineup for the Art of Cool here.