In its second year being run by The DOME Group, Durham’s homegrown The Art of Cool Festival brought neo-soul doyenne Jill Scott and hip-hop legacy acts Run-DMC and Big Daddy Kane to town. This followed a 2018 festival that featured the likes of Erykah Badu, Nas, and the surprise reunion of North Carolina’s own Little Brother.
What you didn’t see a lot of? Jazz, the genre the festival was built on. There were crowd-pleasing chart-toppers galore, but jazz accounted for only about 15 percent of the lineup. Critics took notice, accusing the new owners, The DOME Group’s Sulaiman and Lesleigh Mausi—a married couple from Detroit—of abandoning the eight-year-old festival’s roots in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
On Facebook, Larry Reni Thomas, a North Carolina native and one of the country’s preeminent jazz critics, derided “a clear-cut, revealing reflection of our blood-sucking, money-making music and entertainment industry’s feeble, historic effort to dumb down the public and to foolishly ignore the importance and signficance of American Classical Music, commonly called ‘jazz.’”
Thomas went on to describe the first AOC Festival, in 2011, where he watched Nnenna Freelon, the NCCU Jazz Ensemble and Big Band, Kenny Garrett, and others perform.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is too deep for Durham. It ain’t going to last.’ Turns out I was right.”
Al Strong, a trumpeter and a jazz professor at N.C. Central who cofounded The Art of Cool Project with Cicely Mitchell, laments the loss of their version of the festival’s “artistic, curatorial approach” but says they intentionally never called it a jazz festival. While they sought to create an event where jazz musicians could push the envelope, they also wanted the freedom to cross genres, and they didn’t want to turn people off with narrow definitions. Even so, they couldn’t make it work financially, and Strong and Mitchell sold the festival to the Mausis last year.
Sulaiman Mausi says he’s “super excited about what has happened” since The DOME Group began producing the festival in 2018. He describes it as a learning process and says he’s working to expand the festival’s scope to make it a travel destination for Durham. And he’s proud to have snared the headliners.
“We got Run-DMC here; that was once in a lifetime,” Sulaiman says. “They hadn’t been in North Carolina in thirty years.”
The Mausis are mindful of the criticisms that have been leveled at them. Lesleigh says they’re trying to strike a balance that maintains the integrity of what the founders intended while expanding the festival to make it accessible for more people.
That includes presenting artists at smaller venues like The Pinhook, Motorco, Beyu Caffe, and the Durham Armory. And while Erykah Badu and Nas grabbed headlines, the festival has also given stages to underground talents like Emotional Oranges and Flint Eastwood, and presented a few jazz artists, including North Carolinians Marcus Anderson and Yolanda Rabun.
“We had more local artists performing than any other festival that I’m aware of in recent history,” Sulaiman says.
In September, Sulaiman told the INDY that the AOC’s jazz offerings are something he’d like to improve, but he also noted that folks who claim to love jazz aren’t necessarily buying tickets.
And Sulaiman isn’t shy about keeping his eye on the bottom line.
“If jazz isn’t selling, or hip-hop isn’t selling, you better put some country-western up there,” he said.
Though they hail from Detroit, the Mausis have considerable legacies in Durham. Sulaiman’s great-grandfather owned and managed the Garrett’s Biltmore and Garrett Parker pharmacies on Black Wall Street, which was destroyed by the urban renewal programs of the 1960s and ’70s. And his grandfather, Nathan Garrett, was the first black licensed CPA in North Carolina.
Sulaiman attended N.C. Central, where he promoted parties and club events. The Mausis married in 1999 and started a family in Durham. Lesleigh taught at Githens Middle School and was later recognized as Durham Public Schools’ assistant principal of the year during her tenure at Jordan High.
They lived in Durham for sixteen years but cultivated their promotional skills during summers in Detroit, where they programmed entertainment for the city’s riverfront venue. In 2008, their company, The DOME Group, booked smooth-jazz saxophonist Najee for a concert at The Carolina Theatre. Soon after, they were recruited to handle urban programming at the newly opened Durham Performing Arts Center and started booking big-name acts, including Mary J. Blige, Anthony Hamilton, Big Sean, and Al Green.
The Mausis say that purists like Thomas shouldn’t give up on American Classical Music again being prominently featured at the festival.
“One of the things that makes The Art of Cool so attractive is it offers a nice blend,” Lesleigh says. “We have jazz, but there’s also jazz-influenced music. So much of modern music has been influenced by jazz. Listen to the bass lines, listen to the instrumentals or the guitar riffs. The jazz influence is employed by all music genres. It’s an honor to carry it on.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Larry Reni Thomas is from North Carolina, but he is not from the Triangle.
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