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!

Listen to a track from Silence Fiction, The Beast’s debut album

September 14, 2009 by Eric | 0 comments

Silence Fiction cover

I am thrilled to announce the release of The Beast’s self-produced debut album, Silence Fiction, on October 16th, 2009 with a killer release party at Duke Coffeehouse in Durham that same day.  Here is a link to the press release about the album.  I feel like I’m having my first baby (except that it’s a 4-way collaborative birthing process, and it did take nine months from rehearsing/tracking to mastering/album art).  Silence Fiction is my first experience co-producing and releasing a full-length album on a significant scale (indie budget, professional studios, robust sales plan, etc.) and as such I will post a few articles over the coming weeks reflecting on what I’ve learned in the process and what you can expect to hear when you purchase the album.

As a teaser, here is “Translation,” the lead single from Silence Fiction.  Featured on the track is my other major project, Orquesta GarDel.  Pierce’s lyrics are inspired by the true story of when he took Raphael Saadiq to see a GarDel show after his own concert at DPAC.  Methinks there are more hip hop/salsa collaborations in my future…

I hope you enjoy the track, let me know what you think!

Download a new EP from The Beast for free!

June 19, 2009 by Eric | 0 comments

designed by Brendan Ward

I’m happy to announce The Beast’s second release, entitled Catalyst.  This came about through working with the Durham Arts Council and Sound Pure Studios to do a fundraiser concert.  We wrote two songs for the occasion, with two great collaborators in mind: vocalist Nnenna Freelon and guitarist Chris Boerner (The Proclivities, Mosadi Music).  The entire Catalyst project came together in just three weeks from songwriting to tracking to mixing to album art, a fantastic effort from everybody involved.

Please tell all your friends that you can download the album for free at our newly redesigned site:  I hope you enjoy it!

From the press release:

Durham, NC – On May 21, 2009 visionary hip-hop quartet The Beast, and Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon performed an intimate benefit show for the Durham Arts Council at Sound Pure Studios. Held entirely within the recording studio, Freelon performed one song which she, along with Sound Pure staff members, used as an opportunity to explain the recording process for the attendees. The Beast closed the show, performing two original songs: “Once Again,” featuring Nnenna Freelon, and “Come Up, Come Down,” featuring guitarist Chris Boerner. This intimate live performance, recorded and mixed at Sound Pure Studios, will be released Monday, June 15, 2009, as a free downloadable EP entitled Catalyst, exclusively at

The Durham Arts Council billed the show as “a unique evening of music, fabulous food, and an inside look at the artistic process in a recording studio.” With only 25 seats available, the event sold out quickly. All proceeds went towards the Durham Arts Council’s arts education program and grants. While Catalyst is available as a free downloadable EP, The Beast encourages a donation to the Durham Arts Council, with the hopes that their music will continue to support the arts in Durham beyond the May 21st performance.

Independent Weekly: listen to The Beast in 2009

January 9, 2009 by Eric | 0 comments

I am currently in Brooklyn attending the School for Improvisatory Music’s Winter Intensive. It has been an eye-opening week of masterclasses, philosophical/spiritual discussions, great playing, and wonderful people from all around the world. I will write a post about my experience as soon as I get back to North Carolina.

In the meantime, I was surprised (and giddy) to find out that the Independent Weekly has written an article about the Top 10 things to listen for in the Triangle in the upcoming year, and The Beast is number three! Thanks for the words of encouragement, Grayson; we strive to challenge ourselves in rehearsal and performance to combine our influences in unexpected ways that are meaningful for us and exciting for the audience. I think this is the first time there has been press describing what The Beast seems to be all about. See what you think:

One of the Triangle’s new bright lights, Durham’s The Beast subverts a half-dozen stereotypes, and that’s just staring at the surface: The Beast, for instance, isn’t a metal band, and the name’s not a reference to malt liquor. Instead, the multi-racial quartet makes live band hip-hop that opens its doors to history—Bob Marley covers, Gil Scott-Heron references, soul vocals, jazz style and taste—as emcee Pierce Freelon (yes, he has a mom) implodes preconceptions about being black in Durham. Listen to his “More2Me,” and relish in the possibilities for them and, well, for us.

Have a great Friday!

Coming home from New York

June 25, 2008 by Eric | 0 comments

Lauren and I stayed in town for a few days after the show load-out to decompress and catch up with long-lost friends. I’ve been sleeping and taking lesiurely strolls around the city, a welcome change of pace from the intensity of the previous weeks. Today we fly home, so I am taking a moment to look back on my return to the theatre world.

The show had a great run and John Q. Walker (Zenph founder) couldn’t be happier. For such a small software company to write, hire, design, promote, and produce a show and have a strong NYC opening in only four and a half months is quite a feat; I need to take a moment to be very proud of that.

On opening night I was approached by jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr’s widow and son, who were both very moved (even by the live playing of Art Tatum alone) and couldn’t wait for Zenph to bring Phineas back to the stage. Sunday’s show was buttoned with a ceremony where Zenph conducted the donation of Tatum’s estate by Geraldine (Tatum’s widow) to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, which includes not only Tatum’s suits and Grammy, but also his Steinway piano!

This is the first time I’ve managed/produced such a large project, and it turned out I was more than capable (not without a requisite amount of anxiety). I was also happy to be a theatrical sound designer again, a hat I haven’t worn since college. Although I don’t feel destined for a career as a Broadway bigshot (too much inauthenticity), the real-life (and sometimes sobering) education I received while managing this show will certainly apply to many areas as I move forward in an entertainment industry career.

But now it’s time to put down the cell phone and the business cards and return to the practice room. Learning about music administration on your feet comes at the price of time to compose, arrange, and hone your craft. For the second half of this summer I will re-center myself, return all the way to my artistic roots (perhaps for the first time), figure out what it really is that I want out of an artistic life, and go from there.

I have been blogging about Zenph and Orquesta GarDel, and soon I will introduce you to The Beast, a hip hop/jazz/soul collaborative that I have been writing and performing with since last summer.  I’ve been longing to consistently rehearse and perform with a jazz trio, a project which might finally materialize in the next few weeks. I feel long overdue for my next round of original jazz compositions, I just need a vehicle to perform them.

When I read back on what I have just written, how can I not feel an extraordinary sense of gratitude for the people, gifts, and opportunities in life?

Thanks for all the support and well-wishes over the past few weeks, and stay tuned for some new developments! Downtown Durham will be a welcoming sight.

Orquesta GarDel featured in Independent Weekly cover article

June 11, 2008 by Eric | 3 Comments

Hey all, today is a great day for the salsa band that I co-direct (as well as arrange and play piano for), Orquesta GarDel. We are the cover article for the Independent Weekly, the Triangle’s premiere alternative weekly newspaper (North Carolina’s Village Voice, if you will).

Here is a link to the article, which traces the story of the band’s founding to it’s future aspirations and cultural significance in the larger Triangle music scene.

I am so proud of this giant, hard-working band of musicians from many backgrounds. It is great to be able to share our story with a wider audience.

Please read the article, check out GarDel’s music, watch for new shows, and let me know what you think! I’ve never been quoted so much before…