Classic Cincinnati: Cincinnati Music Festival still going strong after more than 50 years

Posted at 11:00 AM, Jul 25, 2017

There are certain things that are just so Classic Cincinnati -- from neighborhood traditions to food to festivals to celebrations. As a Tri-State native, entertainment reporter Brian Mains loves either remembering or learning about them. That's why he decided to write a recurring column celebrating the Queen City's unique heritage.

CINCINNATI -- For more than 50 years, thousands of people have come to the Queen City each summer to attend one of the biggest -- and now oldest -- music festivals in the country.

This year will be no different when the Cincinnati Music Festival takes place Thursday through Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium, said Joe Santangelo, president of the Santangelo Group. The group has organized the festival since 2005.

"We expect this to be the most well-attended festival yet," Santangelo said. "Our attendance is through the roof."

R&B stars Mary J. Blige and Usher will headline the Friday and Saturday night shows. Throwback Thursday, an event designed to draw a younger, more local audience, will return for its second year.

"We've had a lot of great performances at the festival in the past, but this year is going to be truly big," said Fran Santangelo DiBattista, Joe Santangelo's daughter and the Santangelo Group's marketing director.

Great performances -- and organizers' attempts to outdo previous years -- are staples of the music festival, which launched in 1962.

A festival by many other names

What is now called the Cincinnati Music Festival has gone by many names.

Image courtesy the Santangelo Group

Organizers gave the event its current name in 2015 after Procter & Gamble took over primary festival sponsorship. From 2005-2014 it was called the Macy's Music Festival. Before that, it was named the Coors Light Riverfront Stadium Festival (from 1990-2001); the Jazz Festival (1989); and the Nissan Festival (1988).

"Some people still call it the Kool Jazz Festival," Santangelo said.

The "Kool Jazz" name is the festival's longest, first appearing as the Kool Jazz Festival from 1975-1979 and then as the shorter Kool Jazz Fest from 1980-1987 thanks to sponsorship from the Newport cigarette company.

The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival is perhaps the name most synonymous with the event that Joe Santangelo's brother, Dino Santangelo, launched in 1962 with legendary jazz festival promoter George Wein.

Image courtesy the Santangelo Group

Wein and Dino Santangelo had previously organized the French Lick Jazz Festival at the French Lick Sheraton Hotel in Indiana when Dino Santangelo was the public marketing manager for the hotel chain. That event, which drew 20,000 visitors, eventually prompted them to launch the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival on Aug. 24-26, 1962, at what is now the Hamilton County Fairgrounds, according to Dino Santangelo's son Scott Santangelo in his book "The Ohio Valley Jazz Festival."

Festival's sound shifts

The lineup for the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival was pure jazz, featuring legendary musicians Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson. By 1964, the festival moved to Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, to accommodate even larger audiences, according to Scott Santangelo.


More popular acts and rhythm and blues artists started appearing on the festival lineup as the R&B genre grew, said Joe Santangelo. Artists such as Dionne Warwick, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Al Green, Ella Fitzgerald, the Isley Brothers, the O'Jays, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Patti LaBelle and Whitney Houston performed at the festival over the years.

Image courtesy the Santangelo Group

Crosley continued to host the festival each summer until the event moved in 1971 to the new Riverfront Stadium, where it remained until 2001.

Dino Santangelo organized and promoted the festival under its many names until his sudden death two weeks before the festival's 25th anniversary in 1986, according to news reports at the time. Joe Santangelo, who had assisted his brother for years, picked up the reins and has organized and promoted it ever since.

The show must go on

The only time the festival ever stopped was from 2002 to 2004.

Joe Santangelo said the one-two punch of the post-9/11 recession and a boycott in the wake of the 2001 Cincinnati riots prevented him from organizing the festival. Support from the city of Cincinnati, a partnership with the Cincinnati Bengals to host the festival at Paul Brown Stadium and new sponsor Macy helped revive the festival in 2005, he said.

After partnering with P&G in 2015, Joe Santangelo and his daughter added new elements to the festival, such as Throwback Thursday, which appeals to a more local audience. The Thursday evening event includes a fashion show by local designer Chanel Scales, owner of Shingo Clothing, and performances by hip-hop legends Doug E. Fresh, Rob Base and Kid Capri.

"By continuing Throwback Thursday, we hope to grow the Cincinnati Music Festival into a three- or four-day event," DiBattista said in January.

Last year's Cincinnati Music Festival drew more than 55,000 attendees, with about 85 percent coming from out of town, according to the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau. The bureau estimated the three-day event had an $11 million economic impact on the city.

In June, Joe Santangelo estimated the festival's 2017 attendance to be significantly higher than last year, saying organizers already had sold nearly 70,000 tickets.

Festival-related events are also growing. Festival 513 will celebrate its 10th anniversary outside of Paul Brown Stadium on Friday and Saturday. Cincy Soul, a food festival that launched in 2016 on Fifth Street, is expanding to two days, Saturday and Sunday, and will include its own lineup of entertainment.

"If you look, there really aren't a lot of events of this type," Joe Santangelo said of Cincinnati Music Festival's success. "We're the oldest event, and this year I think we are going to be the biggest."