The inaugural Art of Cool Festival kicked off in elite fashion last night, inside the Nasher Museum for a “VIP Opening Party.” Designed as an appreciation for the festival’s sponsors, supporters and VIP ticket holders, the invitation-only event brought out attendees in jazzed-up suit jackets and cocktail dresses. By tomorrow, their attire should be remarkably more laid-back, as they bop around downtown Durham, from venue-to-venue, in search of grooves and, hopefully, indoctrinating a new Bull City music tradition.
For the party’s showcase performance, Art of Cool Project co-founder Cicely Mitchell recruited six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and Durham resident Nnenna Freelon and her daughter, visual artist Maya Freelon-Asante, for an interesting multimedia presentation, Remix the Future: A Mother/ Daughter Mashup. It was the combo’s first time together on stage, and it served as a test run of sorts for their upcoming stageplay, The Clothesline Muse. When Art of Cool began rolling out its list of performers, the assumption was that The Clothesline Muse would actually make some kind of debut at the festival. But Wednesday night’s stage performance was a laidback celebration of improvisation and family, not to mention a unique blend of musical and visual arts.
Before the set began, Mitchell made an announcement: “The artist has requested no movement from the crowd.” That rule went out of the window the moment the affable Freelon hit the stage. She made it known that this would be an “interactive” show. Freelon-Asante arrived on the stage and began working with the large, hanging strands of dyed toilet tissue, draped across the back of the stage in a bursting arrangement of florid colors and textures. She and her mother began an improvised conversation about how their separate talents inform each other’s works, as Apple Juice Kid provided both drum pad and djembe beats for Freelon’s freestyle vocals. Freelon-Asante assembled a mural made from flushed hues of ink-splotched paper.
Later, the son of Nnenna—globetrotting educator and The Beast frontman Pierce Freelon—jumped to the stage to deliver a few rap verses about his family’s legacy within the canon of black arts. From the crowd, Phil Freelon, the father and a renowned architect, looked on as his family helped usher in Art of Cool’s brave attempt to build its own extended Durham lineage.