Eric Hirsh

pianist, composer, producer

Why Durham and why Jazz? Three Reasons.

August 13, 2014 by Eric | 3 Comments

On Monday, Art of Cool Project co-founder Cicely Mitchell guest blogged at ArtsNowNC in a piece called “Why Durham, and why jazz?” She presents a few reasons for why Durham is poised for innovation and growth in jazz, both artistic output and audience. The argument is fine, but it doesn’t dig deep enough, since the real purpose of the article is to raise awareness for the Kickstarter round for the 2015 festival. I’ve been thinking about this same subject for years now. I’ve been a Triangle resident since 2000 and a member of the professional musical community since 2006. Plenty of people who might read this post have a few more decades of authority than I, but that won’t stop me from opining :).

Glossing over the fact that an entire generation before mine laid the foundation for the current jazz scene (names like Jim Ketch, John Brown, Gregg Gelb, Chip Crawford, Glen Ingram, and dozens I’m missing), I have been thinking about why the scene was stagnant in the aughts, and finally saw the beginnings of a renaissance around 2010. I’ll put forth three possible contributing factors. I’d like to think Richard Florida and his healthily-funded Creative Class lab would be proud.

 1. The End of Brain Drain

It was quite a common occurrence for the best, most creative jazzers to come through an undergraduate program at UNC, Duke, or NC Central, and emigrate to New York, Chicago, or New Orleans upon graduation (see: human capital flight). This left the Triangle bereft of a critical mass of compelling, proactive musicians willing to invest in the area. At some point, for whatever reason, some people not only didn’t leave but others were coming back. Maybe it’s a love of the Bull City, maybe it’s a strategic move. Something about the area let these musicians know they could forgo the financial hardship of living in a big city and still find meaningful artistic work in North Carolina. Al Strong, co-founder of The Art of Cool Project, is a classic example. Undergrad from NCCU, masters from Northern Illinois University, which degree allowed him to come back and be an adjunct/assistant at NCCU and St. Augustine.

Furthermore, NCCU had the resources to start a graduate program in jazz. This not only retained some of its undergraduates from leaving the state, but also began to draw applicants from outside of North Carolina, infusing the local jazz scene with artists from other parts of the country. James “Saxsmo” Gates is from Virginia. Ernest Turner, while not a student at NCCU, came from New Orleans. Tension, fusion, friction, collaboration. These are ingredients for innovation.

2. Taking a Page from the Indie Rock Playbook

I’ll be the first to tell you that jazz musicians, as a trope, aren’t the most social, business savvy individuals. We wish we had a rabid fan base, a national tour, and great CD sales, but all we end up doing is messing around in different combinations of each other (The Joe Smith Duet ft Charlie Rogers, The Charlie Rogers Quartet w Joe Smith and two other guys) as background music at restaurants, all of us playing the same 50 tunes. Obviously, there’s a disconnect between the dream and the reality.

The Triangle had already seen wave after wave of indie rock/punk resurgence, especially with the proliferation of affordable home recording tools and a DIY/guerrilla marketing approach to fan building. As you might have read, the kids these days (even the classical and jazz ones that go to Julliard) listen to a lot of techno, pop, rock, reggae, and hip hop. So I’m thinking somewhere in there a few musicians watched the way local bands would help each other grow and take the risk of playing for the door at music venues (go where the audiences are) instead of steakhouses, and took a page from that book. That book also includes the idea of branding – having a visual and conceptual representation of your music that people can remember, to help spread the word. Here are some examples of bands that gained traction in the early 2010s:

  • The Mind Julep Jazz Band – specializes in swing-era dance music, and even dresses up in pre-WWII clothes
  • Peter Lamb and The Wolves – hey, that’s how you name a rock band. Residencies at Humble Pie, Casbah playing tangos and the Mario Brothers theme = wider appeal
  • The Brand New Life – Hailing from Greensboro. Come for the high-energy African/fusion stage show. Stay for the post-tonal, Mingus-like compositions.
  • Orquesta GarDel – Okay, yes, this is my own band. The relevant point is that we decided to stop playing exclusively at social-dance-produced restaurant events and start self-producing at the same clubs and festivals as the rock groups. (It worked.)

All three groups use one of the following: a website, Facebook, Twitter. Hey, this is a good time to plug that I curate a Twitter list of Triangle jazz musicians. Which is probably due for some updates. Suggestions?

3. The Art of Cool Project

And finally, The Art of Cool Project happened. Modern, current jazz never had any infrastructure in the Triangle. Jazz musicians, especially those making their living freelancing and teaching, weren’t able to put any extra effort into organizing, web developing, administering any sort of advocacy group. But Cicely has a bio-science degree and looooooooooooves data. Which is perfect for a non-profit in the digital age. So, here they come, and their fist tactic is to put on a series of well-curated (see above: branding, quality, trust) concerts in an intimate art gallery. They took the risk and burden of producing and promoting concerts, giving the movers and shakers and jazz innovators of the area a chance to be heard. Then other, maybe youngers,jazzers looked at the relative local success of those slightly more established jazzers and got inspired. They learned from their mistakes, sent out surveys, outgrew their original venue, and came back for a stronger second year. Their tax structure is “non-profit” but the way they behave is “lean startup

The Art of Cool Project can’t be all things to all people, and doesn’t represent all of the jazz that is happening in the Triangle (generationally, sub-genre-ly), but that’s the whole point. It can’t. It has the good sense to have a focused mission. And look! They consistently accomplish their goals!


Welp. That’s where my thinking has been. I’m sure we could tell the evolving story many different ways, and that I have missed out on some possible contributing factors. Also, kudos to the establishments that have come and gone and allowed Durham jazz to have a home. I’m talking about Whiskey, I’m talking about Casbah, I’m talking about Labour Love. They took risks on us. We need to thank them for that.

Looking forward to the next chapter.

Eric’s 2014 Art of Cool Festival itinerary

April 16, 2014 by Eric | 1 Comment

It’s finally here! I’ve observed, performed for, and occasionally advised the amazing jazz advocacy team over at The Art of Cool Project ever since its inception. I couldn’t be more excited for and proud of this crew as we are two weeks away from Durham’s first annual Art of Cool jazz festival! The lineup that AOC has curated skews heavily towards the current generation (my generation) of progressive, innovative, genre-bending jazz artists, which is fantastic, considering they could have easily booked the Count Basie Orchestra, a Miles Davis sideman, a Blue Note artist or two, and called it a day. Props to Cicely and Al for favoring the up-and-coming over the well-established luminaries. I think Durham is in for a treat.

Like those Triangle journalists who salivated over the first few years of the Hopscotch festival, I wish I could catch every single act at the festival, but here in this blog post, I have whittled it down to a [somewhat] realistic itinerary of what I plan to see. My plan is anchored by the fact that I am performing at the festival twice – Friday night with The Beast and Saturday night with Shana Tucker. I made a decision to avoid seeing most of my Triangle-based peers (I can, and will, support them other times) in favor of the out-of-town artists. For reference, here is the schedule page for the festival line-up.


My morning marathon rehearsal with The Beast and fresh-off-the-plane Shana Tucker will be cut off by the fact that Pete and Steve have to go set up for the 4pm kickoff concert – Peter Lamb and the Wolves. In my mind, PL&TW are the Triangle’s jazz ambassadors to non-jazz people through their longtime residencies at Humble Pie and C Grace. After getting a bite to eat and soundchecking at The Pinhook, I’ll hop over to Motorco to catch Raleigh-bred, Oberlin-trained, New York-refined guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and his band. His concept is super-out-there, but so very very deliberate – bring your big ears and get lost in the groove. Then back to Pinhook where bassist Gizmo is playing a set before The Beast goes on – I first met him at the LEAF festival last October where he was playing with Zap Mama and am curious to hear what his own music is like.

As soon as The Beast is done, all of us will probably throw our equipment in a pile and get over to the Hayti as fast as we can to catch the end of alt-soul vocalist Bilal’s set. His drummer is Steve McKie, who is producing The Beast’s latest album. If if if, I have any energy, I’ll try to get back to Motorco for Thundercat’s late set. Otherwise, I’ll feel like I’ve earned a single-malt scotch and a jam session.


Sleeping in (obv.). The afternoon features two free concert tracks – one jazz-based, one hip hop-based. I’ll certainly be on the American Tobacco campus by 3:30pm for the Revive Big Band. Revive da Live / Revive Music Group is a New York-based jazz advocacy group that I suspect was one of the models for The Art of Cool Project. The Revive Big Band is also one of the inspirations for my own The Beast + Big Band. You know me, I’m addicted to large ensembles. So, I have to see what’s up there. I also want to check out Inflowential who I don’t believe have been together for a few years. I miss the days when the Kooley High crew lived in Raleigh, because their emcees were half of what made Inflowential a refreshing act on the hip hop scene. The other half is that there is no DJ or rhythm section, rather a beatboxer, bassist, and guitarist.

Headed into the evening, I can’t wait to see King at the Hayti. This West Coast group of three female vocalists/instrumentalists/producers got so much buzz off of a 3-song EP (including from Prince!). Who knows what the live show will be like or when they’ll be in NC again. Now, as much as I love Foreign Exchange and as easy as it would be to stay put at the Hayti for their set, I’ve got to get over to the Carolina Theater see what is probably the headlining/premiere concert of this festival, the special Carolina Soul Tribute arranged by/led by violist/composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. This single show hits on everything that I love about music, and many things I try to espouse in my own career – cross-genre collaboration, large ensembles (with strings and flutes!), specially curated programs. And the guest list – Bilal, N’Dambi, Gerald Clayton, Marcus Strickland, Nnenna Freelon? Damn.

I’ll have to duck out of the soul tribute early to go play with Shana Tucker (not that that’s a bad thing). She and I are musical BFFs. I’m making it Twitter official. Duet album coming..eventually/soon. After packing up, I’ll walk up the street to Pinhook to catch Kneebody.

This was a tough blog post to write – I want to be in three places at once for the whole festival. I believe in every single artist that will be gracing the stage. I’ll be Instagramming and Tweeting as much as I can without losing focus from what’s most important – being present to the music, and letting the music open you up.

See you at the festival!