The Art of Cool Festival, Night Two
Downtown Durham
Saturday, April 26, 2014

After Friday night’s launch of The Art of Cool Festival in Durham, I asked readers where they thought the event’s musicians went to cavort after the horn-and-drum smoke cleared. Saturday night, they went to downtown Durham’s The Republic, one of the city’s only places dedicated to having its DJs spin hip-hop, new and old. The Republic is, unfortunately, in its last days, but at least they’re closing shop in the midst of what might be a new pinnacle for high-brow black culture in the Bull City. None of this probably mattered to Art of Cool performers like soul-adventurer Bilal or the ladies of the seraphim trio, KING. Coming off separate performances at the festival, they kicked back to the selections of Atlanta-bred DJ Kemit, in the second and closing night of his Spread Love afterparties.

Earlier in the day, Bilal made a guest appearance on American Tobacco Campus’ Diamond View Park stage, with support provided by the 13-piece jazz machine Revive Big Band. The crew backed him for a relaxed (by Bilal standards, anyway) performance of “Levels.” I marveled at the the lawn’s good-looking crowd, some of whom were taking advantage of the festival’s free outdoor component rather than paying $120 for full passes. Of the small list of complaints I heard about the festival, it was indeed the price tag, which likely kept many folks from populating some of the festival’s less-attended shows.

But for a Saturday afternoon, a free show of this caliber may have been enough for those who weren’t interested in the busy night of a multi-venue event. After all, watching soul-rocker Cody ChesnuTT wear a combat helmet and sing the opening lines to “Everybody’s Brother”—“I used to smoke crack back in the day”—was priceless. It was my first time seeing ChesnuTT, so I’m not sure how long his sets have been half-motivational, half-funk exhibitions. In any case, he’s definitely not the same jerk he was when he penned the lyrics for “Bitch, I’m Broke.” His blues-rock sensibilities aren’t quite as polished as those of Gary Clark Jr., but ChesnuTT sometimes swings for acceptance harder than he has to. Such maneuvering kept cuts like “What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next)” from reaching their liveliest, fuck-off potential, especially in the late afternoon sunshine.

After ChesnuTT’s perfomance, the festival included a one-hour dinner break before the night began. Hungry and aimless, I accepted an invitation to the exquisitely designed home of Durham’s power couple, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon and architect Phil Freelon. A cocktail later, I cut through a long line at Hayti Heritage Center to catch the exquisite soul of KING. The Prince-approved trio glided through “Supernatural,” “Hey” and the “The Story,” with grace and finesse but with not as much vocal punch as a previous act like Alice Smith.

By chance, I wound up in one of the Carolina Theatre’s green rooms, where Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and his accompanying horn players for the night rehearsed pieces of their Carolina Soul Tribute. Out front, John Clayton of the The Clayton Brothers anchored his upright bass firmly and soothingly into the end of the quintet’s time on stage. When it was time for the soul tribute, N’Dambi joined Atwood-Ferguson’s ensemble for a captivating take on a few Nina Simone classics. I struggled with whether or not I should stay to watch the rest of the tribute, but having already seen Bilal, Nnenna Freelon and Marcus Strickland during the festival, I decided to jog off to catch Amel Larrieux at Hayti. It seemed that every male in attendance, at one time, had a fan-crush on the former leader of the soul duo, Groove Theory. Given her music’s usual calm, I wasn’t expecting a pumped-up performance, but I was wrong. She was a firecracker, bouncing around stage freely.

Finally, at Motorco, Christian Scott gave the The Art of Cool Music Festival the greatest finale it could have had. Tuned bullets don’t necessarily shoot from his Adams-designed trumpet, but the way he plays his horn makes his brand of jazz beautifully threatening. By all definitions, Scott, 31, is one of today’s greatest horn players and a sign of the innovative potential of jazz, an argument for its continued relevancy.

From the my spot on the floor, I could see Art of Cool co-founder Cicely Mitchell sitting next to her mother in the top section of Motorco’s seating area. As Scott dug deep into a one of his rich runs, Mitchell yelled and screamed to the stage in a fit of joy and amazement. Her two-day jazz festival had just won over Durham. Her and the music were speaking with each other—for one last time, at least until next year.