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.”
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.
Muhammad Ali, then a young boxing contender from Louisville known as Cassius Clay, attended the 1962 and ’63 festivals to read a poem to promote his upcoming fights. “If (Sonny) Liston gives me any jive, I’ll take him in five,” Ali recited in 1963.
Shifting from jazz to R&B, soul
The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival moved to Crosley Field in 1964, then Riverfront Stadium in 1971. It had continued to draw top-tier jazz performers, including Count Basie, Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, but bringing in singer Dionne Warwick in 1968 was the sign of changing times. The jazz festival became a two-day stadium event for R&B and soul acts.
Soon, “fashion was as lively as the music,” Enquirer fashion editor Janelle wrote in 1971. Everything from jeans and sandals to hotpants, tuxedos with wide collars and evening gowns with plunging necklines. “Colors flashed and clashed, seeming to actually give off a vibration of their own as musicians blasted the air with their notes.”
Kool cigarettes became the sponsor in 1975 and was added to the name: Ohio Valley Kool Jazz Festival. Yet, after several years of “jazzless jazz festivals,” as Enquirer critic Cliff Radel put it, “jazz” was dropped from the name in 1985 so there was no confusion about the type of music being played. It was almost as though “Kool” was the descriptor for the festival itself.
Santangelo family business
Festival co-founder Dino Santangelo, who had also co-produced the Beatles’ concert at Crosley Field in 1966, died at age 52 just days before the 1986 festival.
More than merely putting on an event, Santangelo had used the festival to improve the city’s relations with Black musicians and visitors. He proposed the NAACP black-tie ball before each festival.
“I’ll never forget that for years, when Blacks would come in for the jazz festival, they would complain that the hotels were mistreating them. Their business was just not appreciated,” said Sylvester Murray, former Cincinnati city manager. “Dino was cooperative. When Black people came to town, they felt welcome because of Dino.”
Dino’s brother, Joe Santengelo, who had helped stuff envelopes for the first jazz festival when he was 13, continued the family business as the Santengelo Group.
Returned with a new name
Luther Vandross became a mainstay headliner for 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 acts like Slick Rick and Rob Base have been more prominent in recent years.
Kool cigarettes left 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 the 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 have been sponsors. Since 2006, the Santangelo Group has partnered with Ohio Valley Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Bengals, as co-promoters. The street fest Festival513 has accompanied the music since 2007.
The 2020 music festival, with Janet Jackson scheduled as the headliner, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years later, the 60-year tradition is finally back, a 60-year 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, Toni! Tony! Tone! and Jonathan Butler at Paul Brown Stadium.
Saturday, July 23
Janet Jackson, The O’Jays, Tank, After 7, Kirk Whalum at Paul Brown Stadium.