Art of Cool Festival
Various venues, Durham
A moment of reconciliation took place at last year’s Art of Cool Festival, when the festival’s new co-owner, Sulaiman Mausi, stepped onto the Durham Bulls Athletic Park stage and apologized for a Groupon ticketing snafu that created entry difficulties for many patrons. For those who had attended the homegrown, jazz-forward festival over the previous four years, it was a bumpy introduction to the new Art of Cool after cofounders Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong sold it to Sulaiman and Lesleigh Mausi.
Still, it was a success, with world-class headliners such as Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Nas, complemented by the surprise reunion of hometown hip-hop group Little Brother, which cast a redemptive light on a festival under scrutiny during a changing of the guard.
At the time, little was known by the average Art of Cool fan about Sulaiman and Lesleigh Mausi, a married couple with a deep-rooted relationship to Durham and a proven record as show-runners with their event-production company, The DOME Group. At face value, they were ambitious Bull City transplants from Detroit who were looking to capitalize on a burgeoning black arts-and-music scene. But behind the scenes, the groundwork for their acquisition of the festival had been laid over the years.
From the early 1930s to the mid-1950s, before urban renewal devastated Durham’s black-owned business community, Sulaiman’s great grandfather owned and managed both the Garrett’s Biltmore and Garrett Parker pharmacies in the city’s storied Black Wall Street district. Later on, his grandfather, Nathan Garrett, became the first black licensed CPA in North Carolina.
Sulaiman carried this entrepreneurial legacy with him as a student at North Carolina Central University, where he began promoting parties and club events—a passion he had developed growing up in Detroit, watching his mother, Shahida Mausi, thrive as an event coordinator for the city.
After the couple married in 1999, they started a family in Durham, where Lesleigh worked as an educator at Githens Middle School and was later recognized as Durham Public Schools’ Assistant Principal of the Year, during her tenure at Jordan High School.
For Lesleigh, a trained pianist and former church minister of music, AOC’s “stArt of Cool” youth education program and tech-based Innovate Your Cool component resonated with her as an educator.
While living in Durham for sixteen years, the Mausi family has returned to Detroit every summer, where Lesleigh and Sulaiman program entertainment for the city’s riverfront venue, Chene Park Amphitheatre, which was renamed Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre after the singer passed away last year. It was the Mausi family who organized the Queen of Soul’s tribute concert there. A month later, they were back in Durham on the Art of Cool Festival stage as its new owners.
In 2008, the Mausis made their first impression on Durham’s then-tepid music scene by booking smooth jazz saxophonist Najee for a concert at The Carolina Theatre. At the time, the prospect of a major music festival in the Triangle—especially a major jazz-and-soul music festival in Durham—seemed unthinkable. The first Hopscotch was still a year away; there was no such thing as the Art of Cool Festival, and Moogfest was still in Asheville.
But shortly after the Mausis booked their first show at The Carolina, a larger downtown venue sprang up: the 2,700-seat Durham Performing Arts Center. Eventually, The DOME Group was recruited to run the venue’s urban programming, presenting big-name acts such as Mary J. Blige, Anthony Hamilton, Big Sean, and Al Green.
“What we saw was a niche in Durham that had not been catered to,” Sulaiman says.
“We were out here really just priming the pumps for the market to get used to a nightlife, which wasn’t present in Durham prior to 2009,” Lesleigh adds. “We opened the market up to some live entertainment and energy in the evening for people to come downtown and enjoy great music at an affordable price.”
Still, despite their experience booking music in Durham, the couple seemed like newcomers to many when the festival changed hands; they certainly didn’t have the face recognition of Mitchell (who declined to comment for this story), who constantly put boots on the ground to finesse a bond between the festival and the city. Was this a cash grab or a real interest in advancing Art of Cool and its values?
“I’ve heard some of those critiques, and I have no idea where that could possibly be coming from,” Sulaiman says. “I built my company for people to focus on the music, not on me personally. We have been employing people in this community for a decade. We have an endowment at NCCU, and we’ve always had interns from NCCU and Durham Public Schools. Is someone making a positive impact or not?”
One notable difference between this year’s festival and prior ones is the reduction of jazz. The Mausis say that this is something that they would like to improve on, but that it’s often the case that people who claim to love genres such as jazz don’t necessarily translate into ticket buyers.
“Not only are we expanding AOC, but we’re talking about a bare-minimum $3 million impact,” Sulaiman says. “If jazz isn’t selling, or hip-hop isn’t selling, you better put some country-western up there. … For it to grow, it had to go into bigger rooms. That way, you have the sellable capacity to bring in bigger names to support the costs of bringing in newer and up-and-coming acts.”
The Mausis moved the festival from the spring to the fall, and they moved its main stage to DBAP, where there is room for up to ten thousand festivalgoers.
It’s an ideal space to accommodate this year’s headliners, R&B superstar Jill Scott and legacy hip-hop acts Run-DMC, Whodini, and Big Daddy Kane. Nevertheless, you can’t deny that Art of Cool’s jazz-advancing mission has shifted, with jazz acts like Marcus Anderson outnumbered by hip-hop and R&B artists and DJs, and without much by way of more adventurous, risky jazz artists to balance out the big-name Anderson.
But maybe the five-year span in which Art of Cool was an incubator for jazz and soul adventurers was part of a phase of jazz blending with hip-hop (remember when Robert Glasper was everywhere?) that is no longer trending in the music industry. The Mausis might have to follow that trend to sustain the festival, rather than saturating it with obscurity.
“I’ve always seen Art of Cool Festival and its mission as something to broaden jazz-inspired music,” Sulaiman says. “That word ‘inspired’ means that we can take it anywhere. It’s limitless to me.”
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