Durham, North Carolina has quite the reputation. Understandable, there’s a lot to be said about the Bull City, always has been. It started off quite nicely in 1701 with explorer John Lawson calling the area that would become Durham many years later, “the flower of the Carolinas.” Durham has been called a great many things in the following years - things MUCH different than the flower of the Carolinas.
Recently the big names have been calling the city the new Silicon Valley, the startup hub of the South, the foodiest city in the South, one of the most intellectual cities in the U.S., and to the ire and great chagrin of many longtime locals, the hippest city in the South.
Admittedly, Durham’s been called worse. For decades the city’s crime rates were wildly misreported and distorted. You don’t have to dig too far to find the racial motives behind the bylines. These days outsiders have caught wind of how progressive and incredibull Durham is, but there is still stigma attached to the Bull City. There are still many people who come into Durham asking if it’s ‘okay’ to park their car on Geer Street. Fortunately, they’ll be greeted by the Bull City’s signature warmth, even if they pronounce Durham with two syllables.
Given that it’s one of the most intellectual cities in the U.S., the locals know what brought you here, especially if you’re parking on Geer Street. Inevitably the same thing Vogue glanced over when bestowing the title of hippest city in the South – a sold out music show at MotorCo, event at the Durham Armory, the Carolina Theatre, Pinhook, over even further over at DPAC. You wouldn’t be the first, nor the last scrambling to find parking at the last minute because you underestimated the Durham music and art scene. Tickets sell out and parking goes fast.
Perhaps the tagline on the city signs ought to read, “Drop your expectations at the city line.”
Welcome to Durham. Here you’ll find all the perks of a thriving metropolitan with a progressive, small town vibe. You’re more likely to bump into an award winning artist, a humble business mogul, or owner of the Durham Bulls than you are to run into someone wanting to break into your car. One more time with feeling, welcome to Durham.
Here we have Norte Dame Alumni TJ McDermott running hometown treasure King’s Sandwich Shop with great pride and delight. We have Doctor Nicole Swiner who manages to run a publishing company with her husband Ric Swiner in between patients and on her lunch hours. We have retired Duke Medical nurse Yvette West running Bulldega Urban Market across from City Hall with wine tastings every Friday of the store’s thoughtfully curated wine selection.
You could very easily bump into City Councilman, founder of the Indy Newspaper and Mayoral candidate Steve Schewel shooting another episode of his town hall web series with Runaway clothing’s media manager Justin Laidlaw. They’re both more likely to give you directions to where you’re headed than to stop the camera from rolling.
We have hip hop artist, 4th generation Durham, Joshua Gunn working as a VP of the Durham Chamber of Commerce while his collaboration with G Yamazawa and Kane Smego, North Cack, is receiving national air time and screen time. Geer Street would actually be a prime location to run into the man behind the camera on the North Cack music video, Saleem Reshamwala, got an Emmy nod July 28th, 2017 for another one of his projects, “Who me? Biased?”
It doesn’t stop there. We have hip-hop artist, founder of Blackspace, and professor Pierce Freelon running for Mayor. He’s son of acclaimed architect of the National Museum African American History and Culture Phil Freelon and 6 time Grammy nominated Jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, who also both call Durham home.
If you’ve stopped worrying about your car parked on Geer Street you can mosey further on downtown and happen upon another defiant of expectations, Doctor Cicely Mitchell. Cicely holds a PhD in biostatistics and reins of the Art of Cool, a premier jazz festival that floods the city with world class jazz talent and millions in revenue each April.
Sit down and have a glass of wine with her during her weekly office hours, which are open to the public. She’ll tell you all about the Art of Cool if you ask. In the spirit of Bull City transparency, she’s more likely to ask what dope project you’re working on. That’s Durham.
It was during these said office hours I met Cicely at the West End Wine Bar at 601 West Main Street. The first time in my Durham experience I found myself lamenting a short drive with no stops that ended in a prime parking spot. You see, I was trying to find some cool deep within my soul to meet with the President of Art of Cool, but alas that would take a much longer drive. It would have behooved me to leave my expectations at home or at the very least check them at the door when I arrived. Deep down I know that Durham is no place for expectations. They’ll get blown away.
There was Cicely, possibly one of the most accomplished women in Durham, working away on her laptop. I sat down. She closed her laptop. A Bull City friendship was born over a few glasses of Cabernet. Wouldn't have it any other way.
Rather than question why a nutrition writer from Wyoming was writing a Durham living history book, she asked what she could do to help and agreed to an interview. She gets it. Cicely is originally from Dyersburg, Tennessee. She came to North Carolina in 1999 to go to UNC Chapel Hill to get her master’s degree in biostatistics. In 2005, she came to call Durham home. Somewhere between then and now, she and her business partner Al Strong started the Art of Cool.
Cicely sums it up nonchalantly, “I’m Cicely. I live downtown. I’m from Dyersburg, Tennessee, which is west Tennessee. I came here for school, UNC Chapel Hill in ’99 and then graduated in ’01 with my masters. Decided to work at Quintiles for a couple years and then PPD. Then went back to school at UNC, met a trumpeter, started the Art of Cool and that’s me.”
There’s a distinct moment when you can see what lights someone up. For Cicely it’s the very moment she says Art of Cool. Her face lights up. She sits a bit taller. The conversation picks up pace. It’s evident that her work with Art of Cool energizes her. That must be the magic fuel that helps her balance life as a full time statistician and head of a non-profit. What came next was a breakdown of the Art of Cool’s mission and all its initiatives starting with the Start of Cool program for children.
“I go and get the money for the Start of Cool camp. The curriculum and actually doing the teaching, that’s all Al Strong, my business partner Al. We work in tandem. I go and get the money to pay the guys. He goes and gets the guys to teach kids. That’s how we work.
“This is actually our fourth camp, our fourth summer over GSA. Global Scholars Academy, the school across the street from Union Baptist, which is one of the big black churches here in Durham. It'll be our first summer at Chavis Park, which will take place in Raleigh this August. Al has his masters in pedagogy and jazz performance. He’s been doing these camps since he’s been playing the trumpet. Whether he’s participating in the camp or he was a camp counselor. He took some of his past experience and his teaching degree and developed his curriculum.
“We've kind of been tweaking the curriculum for the past couple years. Once we got to the fourth year, he wanted to replicate it in Raleigh.”
The ball was rolling and it was evident how much Art of Cool means to Cicely. Fortunately you checked your expectations at the city line, otherwise a doctorate of statistics becoming the best jazz curator in the South might have thrown you for a moment. Especially when she dives into the core of the Art of Cool.
“The Art of Cool itself is a non-profit and our mission is to expand our audience with jazz. With any nonprofit you have some type of programs and program targets - we currently have three programs. The Art of Cool festival is one of our programs. Another one of our program is the Start of Cool, which is music education for kids. Our last program is Innovate your Cool, which happens to be a part of the festival. In the off-season, when it is not the festival, we put on little pop ups under the Art of Cool name to keep our name out there and again expand the audience of jazz.
“Most of those [events] are usually free or at a very low cost, so people have some experience with jazz other than listening to hold music, like Kenny G, on the phone or being in an elevator and hearing sleepy jazz. We want people to have an interactive, fun experience with jazz. I’m into reprogramming people as to what jazz can be a living breathing thing.
“Start of Cool is something we typically do in the summer time. It started off as a summer camp. This year, besides the new summer camp we’re doing in Raleigh, we received approval to be part of the CAPS program, it is an arts program for Durham public schools. You have to apply every two year with the Durham Arts Council to be in the CAPS program. Various organizations, artists or whomever, can apply to be in the CAPS program.
“The state puts aside money to bring art into schools, whether it's assembly or you know master classes or whatever. If you're an arts organization you can apply to be in a booklet that goes to the Durham public schools, in which they can choose which art programs go into their schools. We are excited to have Start of Cool will be a part of the CAPS program starting next school year.
“We'll be doing a lot more, Al will be doing workshops and pop ups, all of that. That’s the next step for Start of Cool. We really want to start focusing more on the music education side. A lot of people know us for the festival and that’s cool, but I think it’s even cooler to be able to grow our music education. Put Al to work. He already works hard, but really allow him develop his music curriculum.”
The interview didn't end there and we'll pick up where we left off in the next blog. There’s much more to dive into with Cicely, like her upcoming role as the stage manager of Golden Belt’s $20 million dollar renovation, Mill Number 1. She will be bringing in more musical talent to the city, specifically to the East Durham area. We dove into what it’s like to put the Art of Cool festival all together and continually curate musical talent throughout the Triangle. If you cannot wait until the next installment, I recommend seeing Cicely at her next office hours.
To support the project, spread love and have some incrediBULL goodness in your life, head over to The Bulls of Durham store. Offering up everything from the famed Bull Love Mug in both English y Espanol to the new Bulls of Durham logo tee.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.