It’s 2 p.m. on a balmy July Friday and, for a rare moment during a weekend that promises to be anything but still, Cincinnati’s Fountain Square feels quiet. A bronze statue with water free-falling from its palms marks the center of the city’s Downtown meeting place, and around the fountain’s edge, a smattering of passersby are sitting down to rest. Within the rest of the square, colorful booths manned by brown faces decorate the periphery. Tables and hangers and mannequins boast crafts both handmade and imported: skirts, dresses and crinkled fans made from ethnic prints, life-size framed artwork, shimmering jewelry, (possibly) designer handbags and bedazzled graphic tees boasting Sankofa symbols and phrases like “Thick Thighs Save Lives” and “Black 365.” These vendors are a blend of native Ohioans and those from other U.S. cities who can’t help but flock to Cincinnati during one of the area’s most festive times of the year.
Consider this the calm before the storm. By this same time tomorrow, the square will be teeming with activity orchestrated by Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Vibe Cincinnati platform. The hum of gentle chatter will be replaced by the boom of music from a stage occupied by community performers, and crowds will gather in front of it to film the music or two-step to it with impromptu dance partners. Those not keen on the heat will seek refuge from the sun beneath the shade of a table umbrella, or line-up up at the plethora of food trunks for some nourishment. And then at night, the masses will retreat to the seats of Paul Brown Stadium to partake in the festival that has served as a magnet for the black community for over half a century.
When you think of the bulk of festival season mainstays—Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza—a low-key city like Cincinnati may not come to mind. But perhaps that’s because for 57 years, Cincinnati Music Festival, presented by P&G, has remained one of the Midwest’s best kept secrets. The longstanding festival, dubbed the largest urban music festival in the country, is molded for R&B, soul and funk lovers, many of whom travel from the likes of Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, Chicago, Texas, California, and Atlanta to experience it firsthand. (This year’s lineup included Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tamia, the men of New Edition and more.)
“I am a Cincinnati homegrown girl and I think it’s just amazing that people from out of town come to Cincinnati for the music festival, just to show how Cincinnati can be lit and can be comparable to other big cities,” says Morgan A. Owens, CEO of the MAO Brands. She’s not the only Cincy native proud of the city’s yearly time in the spotlight.
“It’s a good time to be in Cincinnati,” Tim’m West, recording artist and Cincy Black Pride organizer, says. “When I first moved here everyone was like, ‘why did you move back here?’ Now it’s starting to being like, ‘oh,’ that’s not the default. ‘Oh, it’s a good time to be in Cincinnati,’ is what people are saying.”
Bertie Ray III, owner of Switch Lighting & Design, the venue hosting the weekend’s Cincinnati Black Pride Day Party, agrees. “It’s overwhelming. You’re talking about 80,000 people from throughout the Midwest. From Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, it’s just folk from everywhere. So what’s wonderful to see with this many people in the city, is new fresh energy comes to the city,” the Washington, D.C. native says. “But also over the last three or four years, Cincinnati has hosted any number of conventions within the African-American community. The NAACP convention, the [Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity] Boule Convention, the Deltas were here, the Links were here, so it’s a destination for black America.”
And although the event’s website reads “Cincinnati Music Festival,” no one in town will call it that. To everyone on the ground, both rooted and visiting, it’s simply Jazz Fest. “That’s what it was originally branded as,” Will Jones, the Marketing and Communications Manager at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, says, referring to the event’s origins as the Ohio Valley Jazz Festival. “It started in 1962 and it’s been here for years outside of, I believe, 2001 through 2004—those three years they had it in Detroit. But we just call it Jazz Fest because that’s what we know it as.”
After spending a weekend in Downtown Cincinnati sampling generous helpings of local eats, brushing up on black history at the Freedom Center, and swaying to the beat of deeply-rooted music each night, it’s clear that the weekend is about more than surface level entertainment like other music festivals. The magic of Jazz Fest is seeing how the different pockets of Cincinnati’s black population come together to build each other up, whether it’s in spirit, with financial support—“We bring in millions and millions of dollars, and it just goes to show the power of the black dollar. It’s a beautiful thing to see our community support black business owners,” Owens says—or in sheer fun.
“We do have a lot to offer, you just have to seek out the opportunity just like everywhere else,” she continues. “It might not be as prominent as a New York or a Chicago or an L.A. or a Miami, but Cincinnati holds it down.”
Here, Jazz Festival frequenters share their favorite memories over the years and offer a glimpse of what makes the event, and their involvement in it, so special for Cincinnati.