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60 years of jazz, R&B and high fashion


The Commodores perform at the Ohio Valley Kool Festival in 1985.

The Cincinnati Music Festival, 60 years old this year, has evolved as much as the music scene has over the decades.

It began in 1962 as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival, founded by George Wein, who had organized 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 Queen City’s first jazz festival was held Aug. 24-26, 1962, at the Carthage Fairgrounds (now the Hamilton County Fairgrounds).

It was a time before concerts were big events, and city police were nervous about a wild jazz crowd. City building commissioner Donald Hunter publicly worried that the fairgrounds grandstand could accommodate “normal sedate patronage” but could not stand up to jazz fans “stomping and stamping about.”

AUGUST 1963: The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival, held at Carthage Fairgrounds.

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 beginning, local musicians have been featured prominently as well. The emcee was Father Norman O’Connor, the “jazz priest,” to help allay any fears of an unruly audience.

“The one main achievement of the festival was that it gave jazz a solidity, speaking culturally, that it had not enjoyed in the City of Cincinnati,” wrote Cincinnati Post critic Dale Stevens.

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