Servers push tables together for the Sunday brunch crowd at downtown Durham's Beyù Caffè. Andrew Berenson is banging out Thelonious Monk on the piano. Cicely Mitchell is describing how the Art of Cool Fest, which she co-founded, has transformed from a cool idea to a year-round endeavor.
"This is my life's work," she says with evangelical intensity. "This is how much we believe in filling a demographic void."
The three-day, genre-blurring jazz and R&B festival wrapped its second year last spring, with an outdoor main stage at the old Durham Bulls ballpark and side stages in various Durham nightclubs. The model was inspired by what Raleigh's Hopscotch Music Festival had done; the booking was more inspired by what it hadn't—representing a fuller spectrum of black artists and culture.
Mitchell and Hopscotch co-founder Greg Lowenhagen are among the key visionaries who have helped Durham and Raleigh's downtowns transform from shuttered to bustling. Hopscotch proved the viability of a downtown music festival in Raleigh; Mitchell carried that vitality across city and color lines to highlight black-owned interests in Durham's complex rejuvenation.
As Mitchell readies the third Art of Cool Fest for next May and Lowenhagen plans the seventh Hopscotch Music Festival for next September, they are unwavering in their focus on local performers, audiences and businesses, even as they expand the scope of their ambitions. But despite wide acclaim and hundreds of thousands of dollars of economic impact, these festivals are still run from kitchen tables in their founders' homes.
Surprisingly, Mitchell wasn't a jazz fan from birth. Growing up in Dyersburg, Tennessee, her family listened to blues and soul—jazz was always a little intimidating. Even more surprisingly, Match.com played a considerable role in creating the Art of Cool Fest.
That's how Mitchell met trumpeter, bandleader and composer Al Strong. She was getting a master's degree in biostatistics at UNC-Chapel Hill and was too busy to date. He wanted to meet someone outside of the clubs where he played.
"I met Al, and then I got the bug," Mitchell says. "Growing up, you want to get into jazz but you don't know where to start. But with Al, it became second nature just by hanging out. Then you just want to convert everybody. We say that we're doing the Lord's work."
Mitchell saw how hard Strong and other musicians worked. Where others might have picked up an instrument, she grabbed the laptop and started Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and email lists. And she looked for new venues to get the music to audiences, such as Durham's LabourLove Gallery in Golden Belt, where a one-off concert by Strong in 2011 turned into a monthly series programmed by Mitchell. That led to pop-up concerts all over town and, finally, a festival pitch that won the $25,000 Startup Stampede.
"We figured, if we're going to pitch something, let's pitch something big," Mitchell remembers. She loved the Hopscotch model of using multiple venues and thought Durham was ripe for the same approach. So she pitched a weekend festival with a core of local musicians, exploring traditional jazz and its modern linkages with soul, R&B, rap, pop and hip-hop.
"There's a rich tradition of black American music in Durham," she says. "It's very important to show that that music is vibrant and accessible to everyone—black, white, young, old. The festival is about discovering the city and showing it off to friends and family. It's been described as a homecoming or family reunion-style jazz festival."
The festival's fit for Durham isn't lost on Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, who is on Art of Cool's advisory board.
"We ought not lose sight of the fact that we live in a city that's as black as it is white and has been for a long time," says Greenwald. "The fact that [Mitchell's] focus has been on black music, starting with jazz and orbiting out—that's really important and vital."
In addition to conducting focus groups with Greenwald and other local cultural leaders, Mitchell asked Lowenhagen for guidance on turning itinerant pop-ups into a full-blown festival.
"Greg was pretty key in helping giving some real-life experience," Mitchell says. "How many venues is enough or too many? Should it be two days or three days? How do the wristbands work, and where do you get them? If Greg had not been so open-book, it would have been really hard to bring forth Art of Cool as fast as we did. We've always been a little cousin to Hopscotch because of that relationship."