This year marks an unusual confluence of major events in local music. On Friday and Saturday, two large-scale, genre-specific festivals each take over a city: The Art of Cool Festival presides over the streets of downtown Durham as Wide Open Bluegrass concludes a week of activities by the International Bluegrass Music Association in Raleigh. These festivals may seem to exist in worlds exclusive to each other, the springy twang of banjos, mandolins, and fiddles in sharp relief against the kinetic jazz universe of horns, pianos, drums, guitars, and more.
But jazz and bluegrass have more in common than even entrenched fans might expect. For one, both have rich cultural histories as distinctly American strains of music, originating from and for the poor and working-class South: jazz in New Orleans, bluegrass in Kentucky. Each has its own unofficial songbook of “traditional” numbers handed down and re-interpreted over the years, and strong improvisational skills are a necessary credential for a player’s participation. The freewheeling jams on both sides might sound very different, but the spirit is essentially the same.
Bluegrass and jazz also share strong roots in North Carolina—bluegrass titans Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson both called the state home, and the same was true of jazz giants like John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Thelonious Monk. And like the short stay in Durham that inspired Duke Ellington to write “In a Sentimental Mood,” Bill Monroe’s time in Raleigh with his brother, Charlie, proved fundamental to the development of his musical identity.
Jazz and bluegrass suffer from some of the same maladies, too, in the form of old-school defenders who would rather clutch to some antiquated notion of what the music “should” be rather than foster its growth in the hands of a new generation. But of course, both genres have a bright class of innovators who reject staunch, finger-wagging traditionalism. Sons of Kemet upend the British monarchy and its poisonous imperial legacy on the wild and wonderful LP Your Queen Is a Reptile, while banjo player and record label leader Alison Brown has spent the last twenty-five years creating more and more space for women in bluegrass.
In our current historical moment, it feels easier to see the world outlined in hard edges and stark divisions. And while it wouldn’t make sense to combine Wide Open Bluegrass and the Art of Cool Festival into one wacky amalgam, it is a good time to consider the common threads that tie us together. Whether you’re flatfooting in time with the Earls of Leicester or getting in the groove with Meshell Ndegeocello, you’re connecting with a long and beautiful music history—just don’t forget it’s not the only one.
ART OF COOL
IBMA / Wide Open Bluegrass