60 years of jazz, R&B and haute couture
The Cincinnati Music Festival, which turns 60 this year, has evolved as much as the music scene over the decades.
It began in 1962 as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival, founded by George Wein, who hosted the first outdoor jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island, and Cincinnati promoter Dion Santangelo. The two had previously teamed up to present a jazz festival in French Lick, Indiana, in 1958, but after a few years decided to bring it to Cincinnati.
The first Queen City Jazz Festival was held August 24–26, 1962, at the Carthage Fairgrounds (now the Hamilton County Fairgrounds).
It was a time when concerts weren’t big events and the city police were nervous about a cheering jazz crowd. City Building Commissioner Donald Hunter publicly expressed concern that the fairground grandstand could accommodate “normal quiet patronage”, but could not resist “stomping and stomping” jazz fans.
The 1962 festival featured jazz greats Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, as well as a deeper dive into the jazz scene with pianist Ahmad Jamal and drummer Jo Jones. From the start, local musicians also figured prominently. The master of ceremonies was Father Norman O’Connor, the “priest of jazz”, to help dispel any fear of an unruly audience.
“The festival’s single major accomplishment was that it gave jazz a solidity, culturally speaking, that it hadn’t enjoyed in the city of Cincinnati,” wrote Cincinnati Post critic Dale Stevens.
Muhammad Ali, then a young boxing competitor from Louisville known as Cassius Clay, attended the 1962 and 1963 festivals to read a poem to promote his upcoming fights. “If (Sonny) Liston gives me jive, I’ll take it in five,” Ali recited in 1963.
Switch from jazz to R&B, soul
The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival moved to Crosley Field in 1964, then to Riverfront Stadium in 1971. It had continued to attract top jazz artists, including Count Basie, Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, but did come singer Dionne Warwick in 1968. was a sign of changing times. The jazz festival has become a two-day stadium event for R&B and soul artists.
Soon “the fashion was as alive as the music,” wrote Janelle, editor of the Enquirer in 1971. Everything from jeans and sandals to hotpants, tuxedos with wide collars and evening dresses with plunging necklines. “The colors flashed and collided, actually seeming to give off a vibration of their own as the musicians blasted the air with their notes.”
Kool Cigarettes became a sponsor in 1975 and added to the name: Ohio Valley Kool Jazz Festival. Yet after several years of “jazz-free jazz festivals“, as Enquirer critic Cliff Radel put it, “jazz” was dropped from the name in 1985, so there was no confusion about what kind of music played. It was almost as if “Kool” was the descriptor for the festival itself.
Santangelo family business
Festival co-founder Dino Santangelo, who also co-produced the Beatles concert at Crosley Field in 1966, died aged 52 days before the 1986 festival.
More than just an event, Santangelo had used the festival to improve the city’s relationship with black musicians and visitors. He proposed the NAACP Black Tie Ball before every festival.
“I will never forget that for years when black people came to the jazz festival, they complained that the hotels were mistreating them. Their business just wasn’t appreciated,” said former Cincinnati city manager Sylvester Murray. “Dino was cooperative. When black people came to town, they felt welcome because of Dino.
Dino’s brother, Joe Santengelo, who helped stuff envelopes for the first jazz festival when he was 13, continued the family business as the Santengelo Group.
Back with a new name
Luther Vandross became a staple headliner at the Kool Festival in the 1980s. R&B legends James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and the hometown Isley Brothers also took to the stage in Cincinnati . Hip-hop groups like Slick Rick and Rob Base have been bigger in recent years.
Kool cigarettes disappeared after 1987 and it became the Riverfront Stadium Festival, then the Coors Light Festival when the stadium was renamed Cinergy Field in 1997.
Coors ended its sponsorship in 2001, but Joe Santengelo was unable to secure a new sponsor due to the boycott in Cincinnati following racial unrest in the city that year, and the festival was canceled in 2002.
It returned in 2005 with a new name, Cincinnati Music Festival, and a new venue, Paul Brown Stadium. Procter & Gamble and Macy’s served as sponsors. Since 2006, the Santangelo Group has partnered with Ohio Valley Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Bengals, as co-promoters. The Festival513 street festival has been supporting music since 2007.
The 2020 music festival, headlined by Janet Jackson, has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years later, the 60-year-old tradition is finally back, a 60-year-old tradition.
Sources: Enquirer and Post Archives, “The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival” by Scott M. Santangelo, “Myself Among Others: A Life in Music” by George Wein with Nate Chinen.
2022 Cincinnati Music Festival Schedule
Thursday July 21
Ari Lennox, BJ the Chicago Kid and Arin Ray at the Andrew J. Brady Music Center.
friday july 22
Charlie Wilson, Fantasia, Anthony Hamilton, Tony! Tony! Your! and Jonathan Butler at Paul Brown Stadium.
Saturday July 23
Janet Jackson, The O’Jays, Tank, After 7, Kirk Whalum at Paul Brown Stadium.