Durham County

Locals and visitors alike delight in free Art of Cool concerts

Kidznotes’ Sofia Gee plays the violin with jazz artist Al Strong (left) during the Art of Cool concert at the American Tobacco Campus Saturday.
Kidznotes’ Sofia Gee plays the violin with jazz artist Al Strong (left) during the Art of Cool concert at the American Tobacco Campus Saturday. The Herald-Sun

Heads were nodding and hips were shaking under the Lucky Strike tower in the American Tobacco Campus on Saturday as the Art of Cool Festival offered free programming to locals and visitors alike.

Despite it being a hot and muggy spring afternoon, the lawn at the ATC slowly filled up with couples and families as local band Jus Once Band kicked off its free-to-the-public set with a cover the Al Green hit “Let’s Stay Together.”

Jus Once Band, a 10-piece band that covers modern and classic songs mixed with jazz and R&B, were playing as part of the Art of Cool Festival (AOC) — the soul, jazz and hip-hop festival taking place in downtown Durham this weekend.

Now in its fourth year, the Art of Cool Festival grew out of the Art of Cool Project, a nonprofit founded by trumpeter Al Strong and Cicely Mitchell in 2010. The nonprofit organization was formed to give audiences venues where they could sit and hear jazz and related styles. In addition to the annual festival, the organization continues to present monthly concerts.

While tickets running $65 and up could get you seats to watch artists such as Common, Rakim and George Clinton, AOC also offers free concerts for those not willing or able to pay the price of admission. The result was a mixture of locals and visitors looking to experience part of the downtown festival.

“I love (Art of Cool), especially the free events,” said Raleigh-native Cassandra Wilson, who was at the show with her daughter Deandra. “The way they have it you can come in, see a great band and bring the whole family.”

Wilson, like many in the audience, had traveled to Durham previously for AOC, but she said she thought this year the festival was doing a better job of promoting itself. The free events in the past have helped get the name of the festival out there to those in the public reticent to spend money on it.

“The free events expose people to an event that they probably wouldn’t pay for, but it gives them an opportunity to get a taste, and then they might buy a ticket for the full event eventually,” said Jatovi McDuffie, an on-field announcer for the Durham Bulls, who was emceeing for AOC.

McDuffie also credited AOC for improving the festival year-to-year as reason it seemed to be gaining a foothold in the city.

“It’s an improvement every year as they try and build on the successes they had in the past and plan for the future,” he said, adding the festival keeps bringing in bigger names each year.

“It keeps building and building.”

Many in attendance showed up on Saturday because they were fans of the Raleigh-based Jus Once Band, who played highly-danceable versions of songs by artists as varying as Drake and Adele — much to the crowd’s delight.

“I love them,” Raleigh-native Nicole Brown said. “I follow them around, so I am kinda like a stalker.”

Brown, who was sipping a drink in the shade, added she was looking forward to enjoying the rest of the night in downtown Durham — with the Jus Once Band being just the appetizer of the night.

“This is the first event, so far, but the day’s not over yet,” she said with a laugh.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes