The Art of Cool Festival, Night One
Downtown Durham
Friday, April 25, 2014

As I was headed into a downtown Durham parking deck on Friday night to jump in my car and drive to Motorco for Thundercat, the last act of Night One of the inaugural Art of Cool Festival, I came across a vehicle full of young Durhamites blasting a trapped-out remix of the Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee R&B duet, “Make It Last Forever.” The driver jumped out of his car and broke into a slow-motion Nae Nae-esque dance; naturally, I joined.

Leaving the deck, I was positive that neither he nor his passengers knew of the jazz-and-soul fest taking over their turf at that moment. But I recognized that, just like their love of that remix, I had, all night, crisscrossed through a similar jazz-informed terrain, where separate musical worlds suddenly melded.

It started in the afternoon, during the “The Institutionalization of Black American Music” panel at Letters Bookshop. Along with moderator Jamal Ahmad, jazz tastemakers Meghan Stabile and Jason Orr termed many of this year’s Art of Cool acts as “post-Dilla” jazz progenies—or, simply, “Dilla Jazz,” a tribute to the influence of late soul and hip-hop producer James “Jay Dee” Yancey on today’s jazz musicians. An example included Robert Glasper, who unfortunately had to cancel his Art of Cool appearance; he fools with the orientation of meter instead of playing music like it must be set to a metronome.

The crisscross happened again at The Pinhook, as I watched one of Glasper’s proteges, experimental bassist Gizmo. He shifted from a low-gravity, dub-soul rendition of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to an even more celebratory version of Outkast’s “Vibrate” with coolness and gel-like motion.

And over at Hayti Heritage Center, Alice Smith—dressed in a leather jumper and wavy leggings—pushed her voice through the former church’s pews, as she charismatically mixed hits such as “Dream” and “Another Love” with a gospel-like cover of Cee-Lo’s “Fool For You.” While most folks stayed at Hayti to catch one Art of Cool’s biggest draws, Bilal, I returned to the Durham Arts Council, where I caught the tail-end of Mark de Clive Lowe’s own focused attack on Dilla’s “Fall in Love,” with his wife and vocalist, Nia Andrews. Armed with a piano, a sampler and a drum machine, he also debuted “Sun Up Sun Down,” a single from his upcoming Church.

I soon bumped into Art of Cool co-founder and trumpeter, Al Strong, ahead of his set at The Whiskey, confirming that I was in the right places. As I strolled down to Motorco, though, I stumbled into Alley 26. Looking around, it was clear that few, if any, in this “fine drinking” establishment were interested in any parts of the jazz festival happening nearby. However, keyboardist Jeremy Marcotte and horn player John Palowitch, both N.C. Central students, played for the crowd as if the uninterested weren’t even there. During one of their breaks, I asked them for the name of the song that they had just finished. “It’s called ‘Just Friends’,” they said in unison. “Who is it by?” I asked. “Some old guy,” one of them said with a chuckle, forgetting that the standard appeared on the 1995 compilation Charlie Parker With Strings, which liberated the much older recording by Parker himself.

Some young guy—bass extraordinaire, Thundercat (Stephen Bruner)—ended the night at Motorco to a packed crowd. Watching him and his other brother, drummer, Ronald Bruner Jr., volley their jams’ innards feels like watching two major warriors battle. As the night’s host tried to end the evening, the crowd booed him off the stage and demanded that Thundercat return. He did, with a fresh drink and the tough-love anthem that everyone wanted to hear, anyway—“Heartbreaks + Setbacks.”

But where do jazz artists go when the official night is over? We won’t talk about that here.