Photos of Art of Cool performers taken by Vickey Ford of Sneakshot for Okayplayer.
Q: What do polar bear toenails, the other side of the pillow and Durham, North Carolina have in common?
A: They are all unmistakably cool.
For the past four years, Durham, North Carolina has played host to a low-key festival on the bleeding edge of cool. Once again, the Bull City plays host to its annual Art of Cool festival in its revitalized downtown district.
While not quite the “Coachella of Jazz,” the festival has expanded from its purely jazz celebration to include hip-hop, funk and R&B acts while maintaining its connection to home. The Art of Cool, in partnership with Innovate Your Cool stands at the intersection of dope things and dope people looking to improve their world. In addition to concerts from the likes of George Clinton, NAO, Terrace Martin and Kenneth Whalum, the event features classes on music production, tech demos, coding and career development lectures, discussions on music history and even “Trap Yoga” classes.
The Art of Cool organization exist to present jazz to the masses and maintain the cultural heritage of the most American of musical art forms. As such, the connective tissue of the festival is the deep connection black music and ostensibly black culture with jazz music. Performances can double as educational seminars with Revive Big Band, who have been wowing and teaching audiences since the beginning. This year, their trip through time featured Goapele, Pharoahe Monch and legendary Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith.
Newcomer and maverick composer Makaya McCraven pushed the boundaries of genre definition during his performance by showcasing what has always made jazz so essential: innovation by way of improvisation. While not defining himself as a pure jazz drummer, his music featured on his latest improvised release In the Moment, crosses not only genre limits, but the boundaries of time signature and traditional song structure. Budding talents like Maségo, with coordinated Morris Day-esque dance moves, and seemingly boundless energy, continued to lean on his jazz influences while embracing the current culture. With hand tats testifying to his faith in “Trap Jazz,” the saxophone playing, Frankie Beverly & Maze-remixing (must be heard to be believed), dabbing and sometimes singing, Jamaican-born and Virginian-bred artist most keenly represents what Art of Cool has become.
DC native and rambunctious “Fall in Love” performer GoldLink rocked the packed crowd at Motocor into the wee hours of the morning. New legend in the making and King Kendrick collaborator, Terrace Martin wowed the audience at the Carolina Theater in the tradition of Cannonball Adderley. Part band leader, part raconteur, Terrace Martin and the Polly Seeds worked through songs that the audience might not have known they knew (like songs from To Pimp a Butterfly) and few that might be new favorites.
The heartbeat of American culture is jazz. Birthed at Congo Square, nurtured in the Mississippi Delta and matured in the smoky clubs of Harlem, jazz’s influence is felt in every genre, including hip-hop. Not just the obvious Jazzmatazz or A Tribe Called Quest samples, jazz is represented in the lyrical presentation and flow of the God MC himself, Rakim. From a musical family, Ra envisioned himself the John Coltrane of rap, weaving his intricate lyrics structured like scales. It is only fitting that the 18th letter would take the stage with a 6-piece band. In celebration of the 30-year release of his seminal album Paid in Full, a panel discussion hosted by Combat Jack, professor Mark Anthony Neal and last minute substitute 9th Wonder. Due to scheduling conflicts, Rakim was unable to make the discussion, so 9th Wonder filled in and expanded the conversation from just Paid in Full to hip-hop history in general and its place in broader culture.
North Carolina native and Jamla Records front person, Rapsody rocked the crowd at the DPAC backed by her band the Storm Troopers and her label founder 9th Wonder. Her hip-hop and soul centered set covered her discography as an opening act for hip-hop most soulful spitter, Common. The Chicago rhyme slayer led the crowd through his vast catalogue of hits representing the best of the hip-hop culture. The festival closed with monster shows from chief funkateer George Clinton and house rocking DJ sets from Just Blaze.
All in all, the Art of Cool Festival continues to expand its reach and appeal while keeping its roots in the spirit of jazz music. This was evident all weekend. A perfect getaway and educational trip for the “I Don’t Do Clubs” crowd and general lovers of music. If you happen to be within driving or flying distance of Durham make it a point to check it out next year for the 5th Annual Art of Cool.
You can find Micah “The Count” Young and his inebriated cohorts, The Brown Liquor Report, talking shit and politicking wherever brown liquor and fine podcast can be found.