A month after Moogfest unveiled plans to relocate from Asheville to Durham last summer, you could soon sense that the Art of Cool Festival knew it needed to get newly busy. The jazz-and-soul upstart had just completed its second year as Durham's only major music event and, once again, finished shy of breaking even. As founder Cicely Mitchell began to think about year three, she knew she'd be vying for ticket dollars and attention spans in an unprecedented way.
The projects started to come quickly. Art of Cool launched Caramel City, a monthly series of jazz-and-soul concerts in Raleigh with hip-hop producer 9th Wonder. The shows expanded both the festival's geographical reach and network of allies. And where jazz jams and jazz listening parties were once the crucial components of Art of Cool's extra-festival programming, the organization soon expanded to all-out dance parties, pizza fundraisers in shopping malls, activism events, art gallery residencies, YouTube announcements, movie screenings, and even collaborative concerts and ticket giveaways with Moogfest and Hopscotch. This sustained promotional scramble seemed engineered to keep Art of Cool's name in the news, to help it coexist alongside the arrival of a relative Goliath.
The Art of Cool wasn't content with this marketing push; though jazz and soul have long served as the festival's anchors, Mitchell decided at last to open its stylistic borders and incorporate hip-hop much more blatantly. As with those pizza parties and community events, she worked to broaden Art of Cool's draw and to get new listeners excited about the weekend. She started somewhere obvious—the radio.
"When I booked Anderson .Paak, I assumed he was on the radio because 'Might Be' was something that I was hearing on the radio," Mitchell says.
For Mitchell, the idea of a local commercial station playing a song by an Art of Cool headliner represented promotional pay dirt. With the exception of 2015 headliner Anthony Hamilton, area commercial stations didn't have a track record of playing the festival's performers.
Soon, though, 9th Wonder told Mitchell that the "Might Be" she'd heard on the radio wasn't .Paak's but instead an uncomfortable facsimile by High Point's DJ Luke Nasty. Still, last month, Mitchell visited the studio of 97.5-FM for a Sunday afternoon session of "919 Radio." She used the platform to have the station actually play .Paak's music and make the distinction and connection clear. A longtime Dr. Dre and 9th Wonder collaborator, .Paak—a singer, songwriter, rapper, and producer—had the bona fides to speak to hip-hop heads.
"I thought that was an excellent way to tell people who he is," she says. "He's the guy that Luke Nasty pretty much ripped off."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
That wasn't Mitchell's only move toward the middle, either: in order to embrace hip-hop and recruit new fans, Mitchell booked the multi-DJ Art of Turntables party featuring the likes of Pete Rock, Maseo, Rich Medina, and DJ Skillz. In doing so, she broke one of the festival's unwritten rules—"live-instrumentation only." The concession makes Art of Cool more inclusive by exploiting a musical loophole, extending the idea that "jazz is all about conversations," as DJ Spooky once said.
"People may not know Kamasi Washington, so, it was about how to expand an audience's point of reference from someone like Miles Davis or, recently, Kendrick Lamar," says Mitchell. "But I started thinking, 'We also love old school hip-hop. And the thing that's great about old-school hip hop is that it samples from jazz and old soul cuts.'"
The kinship between jazz and turntablism isn't new. From Herbie Hancock and Grandmixer D.ST's legendary 1983 "Rockit" fusion jam to Branford Marsalis's mid-nineties Buckshot LeFonque project, plenty of conventional jazz-oriented spaces have embraced turntables.
"In many ways, turntablism and jazz are natural partners," writes UNC-Chapel Hill professor Mark Katz in Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. "The turntable is an extremely versatile instrument in terms of the timbres, textures, and rhythms it can play, and a good turntablist can groove beautifully with a jazz soloist or combo."
For Mitchell, that musical connection is crucial.
"We didn't try to go at it as a direct link, like, 'Here's hip-hop. You should be a part of it,'" she says. "It's more novel, where we have these turntablists who sample from jazz and make hip-hop. This now goes with some of the audience. Hopefully that makes it a little cooler with K97.5 listeners."
For now, Art of Turntables is as far as Mitchell is willing to stretch her programming philosophy. Even Raleigh emcee Rapsody, the year's only other obvious hip-hop performer, will be backed by her band, The Storm Troopers.
"I'm not willing to go and get a hip-hop artist that will just get up there with a turntable and tracks," says Mitchell. "It takes the improvisational element out of it. The whole point is to expose live improvisation to a younger audience that is so used to hearing beats on a beat machine. They have no concept of what real trumpet sounds like."
Indeed, jazz still remains the central tenet of Art of Cool's mission. This year, the festival reunited with the Beyù Caffè, Durham's go-to jazz dive, after a one-year split. It was a strange temporary divorce, with two institutions sharing the same mission of putting more music in downtown Durham seemingly divided on how to do it. (Those shows will be moved, though, due to ongoing construction.)
The Art of Cool's choice to reintegrate Beyù—and make it the festival's free music stop throughout the weekend—speaks to the organization's commitment to jazz, even as Art of Cool looks to move forward by moving beyond its programming past.