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Music to Our Ears (and Cash Registers)

The Cincinnati Music Festival returns this month and helps open the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame. Tourism leaders are singing a happy tune.

by Jaclyn Youhana Garver

She was 7 years old the first time she attended the Cincinnati Music Festival. Her parents often worked at the festival. Her mother, Barbara Howard Reece, opened for Stevie Wonder in 1973. Her father founded his own record label; Barbara was the first artist he signed. And even when they didn’t work and perform at the festival, they were in the audience.

Family history and stories are all tied up in the festival for Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece. “It’s why the music festival is so special to me,” she says, and why this year’s version is the perfect time to officially unveil her passion project, the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame.

The Cincinnati Music Festival has gone by many names. You may still call it the Ohio Valley Jazz Music Festival, which was the first iteration back in the late 1950s, or simply Jazz Fest. Over the years, the lineup has expanded beyond jazz, but it always tries to stay true to its roots. This year’s duo of headliners illustrates that range and dichotomy: Al Green and Snoop Dogg.

The festival will be held July 20-22 at Paycor Stadium and kicks off with a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip hop, “discovered” by Clive “DJ Kool Herc” Campbell, who is often recognized as the grandfather of hip hop. It dates back to a summer day in the Bronx on August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican native, played two copies of the same record and bounced from one to the other. He looped the percussion to keep the beat going while various Masters of Ceremonies would rhyme into the mic and use call-and-response chants to involve the audience.

Admission that back-to-school party hosted by Kool Herc and his sister was a quarter for the ladies. The fellas paid 50 cents. Today the Cincinnati Music Festival is sponsored by Procter & Gamble and touches more than 100,000 people each day, many of whom travel to Cincinnati from across the country. Tourism officials say the weekend has a regional economic impact of more than $100 million annually.

The Cincinnati Music Fest website lists its first lineup from 1958, a roster that included the Duke Ellington Big Band and the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet. After three years in Indiana, the event moved to Cincinnati; its first version here, in 1962 at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds, brought back Ellington’s band as well as Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck.

During those early years, Joe Santangelo was a teenager helping his older brother, who started the festival. He served as a gopher, doing whatever was needed, right down to stuffing envelopes.

The festival remains a family affair, with Santangelo as its producer and his daughter, Fran Santangelo DiBattista, its director of marketing. Things have grown considerably over the decades, morphing from a fest small enough to fit in French Lick, Indiana, to become Cincinnati’s largest tourism event of the year. Hotels fill up south of the airport in Kentucky and up into Dayton, Ohio.

In 2022, after two years off due to COVID, the festival drew its biggest crowd yet thanks in large part to headliner Janet Jackson. DiBattista estimates that more than 80,000 people squeezed into Paycor Stadium to see Jackson’s performance. This year, she hopes the festival attracts even more people. “What’s cool about our show is that 80 percent of attendees are from out of town,” she says, which is one thing that sets the concert apart from music shows at other Cincinnati venues, which tend to draw primarily locals.

Because the show attracts so many out-of-towners, the economic impact of the three-day festival is huge; in 2017, Visit Cincy (aka the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau) measured the festival’s economic impact at $107 million. That income is spread across the region in restaurants, hotels, shops, and other attractions and venues.

“There’s a restaurant in Kenwood that said this weekend is its biggest weekend of the year—all year, every year. That’s a huge win,” says Visit Cincy President and CEO Julie Calvert. “It just shows you that the impact isn’t just happening downtown, but throughout the region.”

Many businesses stay open late to feed the thousands who get out of the concert after 1 a.m., DeBattista says. Last year, more than 75 businesses from restaurants to sneaker stores offered some sort of discount or special to festival attendees. But that wasn’t always the case.

The festival didn’t run from 2002 to 2004 in the aftermath of riots in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere in response to the police shooting of Timothy Thomas. When the fest returned, many downtown businesses were wary of interacting with festivalgoers. Attitudes changed when Mayor Mark Mallory recognized the event’s potential to bring tourism and goodwill to the city and turn around negative outside perceptions of Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Music Festival is an important inclusion opportunity for the city and its business leaders. Procter & Gamble has sponsored the event since 2015, for a variety of reasons beyond the economic impact. The weekend ties into P&G’s belief system that brands should and can be a force for good, says Senior Communications Manager Melanie Denson, who also serves on the Cincinnati Music Festival’s planning committee. “We reach over 100,000 people a day coming in from different places across the country,” she says. “So as we think about helping Cincinnati continue to blossom and grow, it just makes sense from a corporate responsibility standpoint.”

Barbara Hauser, P&G’s community relations manager, echoes the company’s focus on inclusion. “It’s really important to show the community as well as our employees that we’re supporting this multicultural event here in our hometown,” she says. “Our people have an opportunity to participate and celebrate and be part of everything that’s happening.”

The company’s sponsorship isn’t merely a monetary relationship—it’s a partnership. “It just goes back to us being a force for good and a force for growth,” says Denson. “We really need to walk the talk.”

Visit Cincy views the event as a chance to build the city’s reputation and character, says Calvert. At the end of the weekend, as guests head home, she wants them to say, That was easy.

As in: My needs were anticipated.

As in: People were friendly.

As in: Parking wasn’t a pain. I could walk anywhere I needed to go.

As in: I want to come back to Cincinnati.

“It’s not a transactional event,” Calvert says. “You’re getting a whole experience of what it’s like in a Midwestern city that has so much culture and so many diverse communities that make it up.”

It’s such a vital event for the city that Mayor Aftab Pureval has launched Operation Hospitality to maximize the weekend’s impact. Everyone who could possibly have a touchpoint with a visitor—hotels, restaurants, parking lot operators, police officers, firefighters, marketers—gather in one room to discuss putting the visitor first and ensure all parties are on the same page.

“We have 80,000 of our closest friends and family coming to Cincinnati, and we’ve gotta create that experience for them,” says Calvert. “That’s the value our community places on the festival.”

The list of festival-related and -adjacent events and to-dos around the region is long, and getting longer. There are races and food trucks, art events and Black Tech Week, musical acts on stage at Fountain Square and interactive booth experiences from Procter & Gamble and other sponsors around Paycor Stadium.

But perhaps the largest related event this year will be the grand opening of the Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame at noon July 22. The project is the brainchild—and perhaps the heartchild—of Commissioner Reece, who has long wanted to see Cincinnati host a permanent celebration of the region’s Black music history.

Reece’s résumé includes serving as Ohio’s deputy director of tourism, a period when she helped promote the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It made her ask, What about southwestern Ohio? The Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame is the answer to that question.

When she was a child, Reece’s parents had her read Walt Disney’s autobiography. A particular anecdote from the book has stuck with her over the years: When everyone else looked at Florida, they saw swamp; Disney saw Disney World.

So when Hamilton County had some COVID-related economic development funds in the bank, she looked at the empty riverfront lot nestled between Paycor Stadium (the Cincinnati Music Festival’s home) and the Andrew J Brady Music Center (where the festival will kick off) and imagined what it could become. She pictured an experience akin to Disney World.

The Walk of Fame is an $8.5 million effort—on top of a $15 million underground parking garage—to provide what Reece calls edutainment. The “edu” part is the visitors’ learning experience about the influence of southwestern Ohio Black musicians on the region, the country, and the world. The “tainment” is all the fun stuff, including augmented reality kiosks that will allow guests to perform with their favorite artists. They can play music with Bootsy Collins or Penny Ford and become part of their videos. They can scan a QR code and share the recording.

The Cincinnati Black Music Walk of Fame officially opens during this year’s Cincinnati Music Festival weekend.

There’s the Black Music Walk of Fame beat maker, where Cincinnati rapper and DJ Hi-Tek will help visitors make beats that connect to a laser water fountain; the water will jump with the beats. Meanwhile, a screen will rotate with facts and multiple-choice questions about Black musicians. For example, did you know that Prince once recorded in Cincinnati?

The Walk will also include a walkway of stars, of course, similar to those at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The park can accommodate 200 stars, with the Walk inducting four individual musicians or groups from the region each year. This year’s inductees are James Brown, The Deele, Philippe Wynne, and Louise Shropshire.

In addition to the Walk creating a music hub between the Paycor and Brady venues, Reece also points out the location’s historic significance: Along the Ohio River’s 198 acres of riverbank in the city, the Walk is the first acreage devoted to Black culture and life. The spot at the foot of Elm Street was once the home of Bucktown, where many of the area’s slavery ancestors lived.

“Song was very important to us, to get us through tough times,” says Reece. “Having this here gives us a chance to showcase what Black music has meant. This is the missing link between the people honored by the Brady Center and what was named Paul Brown Stadium for years. And so to have this Black Music Walk of Fame on this corner, I think, becomes a real bridge across cultures.”

As the festival and its geography continue to grow and support the city and its visitors, it’s still and forever all about the music and the festival-going experience. And for long-time attendees, it’s not tough to rattle off their accumulated highlights from over the years.

Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece led the effort to build the Walk of Fame on downtown’s riverfront.

For Reece, it’s about the fashion. She remembers tour buses from Chicago full of people she swears were trying to out-dress the other. “You would spend almost a year trying to get your outfits together,” she says, noting that her family often coordinates by color when they attend the festival. “I think the thing that people don’t talk enough about was the fashion—the hair, the nails, the clothes. It was a destination to get to. Everybody had to bring their A-game.”

The last time her mother attended the fest, in 2008—she died shortly after of breast cancer—the entire family wore pink.

Music-wise, one of Reece’s favorite memories is debating with her cousin as a child who was going to outperform the other: Midnight Star (Reece’s choice) or The Gap Band. “I love Charlie Wilson and The Gap Band, but Midnight Star shut the place down,” she says. “Those are my favorite memories, the camaraderie of the bands battling each other.”

Santangelo’s best music memories involve Luther Vandross, who started at the Cincinnati Music Festival as an opening act and moved up a spot the next summer, and then another spot, and then another one. Vandross eventually headlined the festival, which he continued to do for years.

Father/daughter festival producers Joe Santangelo and Fran Santangelo DiBattista.

DiBattista names last year’s headliner, Janet Jackson, as her favorite artist over the years, in part because of their working relationship. “You never know what you’re going to get with talent,” she says. “Big names can be easy to work with or difficult, but her team was so wonderful to work with, and she put on one of the best shows we’ve ever had.”

Sixty-one years and 56 festivals later, the Santangelo family just wants to give the city and its visitors an enjoyable, memorable experience while honoring the event’s history and Black music’s place in Cincinnati culture. “We started out with jazz, morphed to Motown and R&B, hip hop and funk through the 1970s,” DiBattista says. “Now we try to showcase in our lineup a little bit of something from each generation to pay tribute to the fact that we’ve been around so long.”