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’trepresenting 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 souljazz 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 everyoneblack, 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 outthat’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.”
Lowenhagen leans forward when he talks, as if gravity might get the sentences out of his mouth faster. He dunks a tortilla chip in a bowl of salsa at a restaurant a block or two from almost all 12 Hopscotch venues.
“It could have been a hot sauce festival,” he says of Hopscotch. “It could have been putting on plays in the park. It could have been lots of different ideas.”
When Lowenhagen moved to Raleigh for a job as a sales representative at the INDY in 2009, he saw opportunity rather than vacancy when he walked downtown.
“I noticed how close-knit the music venues were and how cool downtown was,” he says. “Since the INDY already had relationships with a lot of these venues as advertising clients, there was an entrée.”
Envisioning the constellation of downtown music venues as the festival’s footprint, Lowenhagen pitched the INDY on a music festival. Steve Schewel, then the paper’s owner, was ready for the pitch.
“The idea of a music festival was something that I had been vaguely contemplating for a while, but it wasn’t until Greg made the idea concrete that it seemed like we could really do it,” Schewel says.
The venues fell in line behind festival co-founders Lowenhagen and INDY music editor Grayson Haver Currin. (The INDY no longer has any ties to Hopscotch, with the paper selling its stake in 2012 and Currin stepping down as co-director in 2013; the majority share of the festival is now owned by a group of Etix employees.)
“A lot of the downtown people had been there a long time already, taking risks, paying taxes,” Schewel says. “Most of them were willing to try it for one year. And now we’re heading into year seven.”
Lowenhagen grew up in Cohasset, Massachusetts. The music collection in his house ranged from his mother’s Motown records to his father’s soft rock. Cohasset also housed the South Shore Music Circus, a community venue where Lowenhagen saw live comedy and mid-level acts. Hopscotch’s eclecticism is grounded in that mixed roster.
Lowenhagen dove into the Chapel Hill club scene as an undergrad at UNC before a 1999 move to Austin, one of the country’s music-festival epicenters. South by Southwest was already one of the largest in the world, and Austin City Limits added its festival in 2002. Lowenhagen tallied the pros and cons of these events firsthand. The con that stood out? Not enough local music.
“The large festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo don’t have the local and international mix that Hopscotch has,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of central Tennessee bands playing Bonnaroo.” Roughly 40 percent of the bands at Hopscotch this year were from North Carolina.
For 2016, Mitchell is streamlining Art of Cool’s ticketing and moving the festival indoors to The Pinhook, Motorco Music Hall, PSI Theatre and the Carolina Theatre, where trumpeter Terence Blanchard is the headliner. Some of Kendrick Lamar’s session players, such as Thundercat and sax player Terrace Martin, will also be featured.
Lowenhagen is also expanding the Hopscotch brand. He partnered with Raleigh design group New Kind two years ago to add the Hopscotch Design Festival, which applies the same eclecticism to the world of design.
The obsessive focus of both directors has made a substantial economic impact in the Triangle: an estimated $1.5 million impact by Hopscotch’s second year and $700,000 from last year’s Art of Cool.
Neither gets much financial support from the cities, however. Hopscotch has always been privately owned, so the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau has lent it marketing support but not hard cash. The nonprofit Art of Cool receives $5,000 from the City of Durhama measly 2 percent of the festival’s total budget. That’s a pretty sweet return on investment.
The cultural momentum that Lowenhagen and Mitchell have started is more visible. The success of Hopscotch helped Raleigh lure the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual festival away from Nashville three years ago, and it’s hard to imagine Moogfest moving to Durham from Asheville without Hopscotch and Art of Cool as proof of concept. Art of Cool is also a crucial force against gentrification in the boom of downtown Durham.
Mitchell and Lowenhagen are as devoted to their cities as they are to the music they program.
“When we built Art of Cool, I really did want people to partake of the city, the downtown footprint,” Mitchell says, “and really be about more than just the music but the full-on experience of downtownthe music, the food, the drinks, the beer, the art galleries, the best ice cream place in the state.”
“The fans really set the toneattentive, upbeat,” Lowenhagen adds. “Fans only spend their money with us for one thingtickets. Once they buy a ticket from us, all the other money they spend goes somewhere else in the city.”
Though the efforts of many have been involved in the Triangle’s music-festival boom, none of it would have happened without these two daring to dream that their beloved cities were more ambitious and sophisticated than they were sometimes held to be. Thanks to them, our downtowns are not diversions, but destinations.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Destination downtown”