Menu

Jazz Fest Canceled Because of Cincinnati Boycott

This year's Cincinnati Jazz Festival, a popular annual attraction for four decades, is the biggest victim so far in an economic boycott called by black activists.

With no corporate sponsor, possible headliner cancellations and slumping ticket sales, producer Joe Santangelo said he will notify city officials of his decision on Wednesday.

"It's just not possible to pull anything off this year," Santangelo told The Cincinnati Enquirer for a story Wednesday. "The only thing you're going to do is upset people even further and lose a whole lot of money in the process."

The festival often drew 50,000 people from throughout the Midwest for its three-day run. Santangelo said he hopes to bring it back next year.

"It's a huge victory," said Amanda Mayes, a spokeswoman for Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and head of Artists of Conscience, which is urging performers not to appear in Cincinnati.

The coalition organized the boycott after the shooting of an unarmed black man led to riots a year ago.

Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg and others have honored the boycott, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention has moved its 10,000-member meeting to another city.

But the first cancellation in the 40-year history of the jazz festival could have the broadest impact of all.

"It really does hurt," said James Washington, owner of Washington Limousine Service.

The black-owned company has handled limousine services for the festival for 25 years and expected to employ 30 drivers for 10 limos and 15 vans.

"It just makes me sick," said Myrna Johnson, owner of MJ Tours, a Columbus-based company that has brought people to the festival since the '70s. Before the riots, she sold as many as 2,000 packages, bringing in R&B fans from as far as New York and Arkansas.

"It started dropping last year and this year it got really bad," she said.

About 500 tours were sold in 2001. This year, it was down to 200.

The festival began in 1962 as a pure jazz event. It evolved into the largest rhythm and blues festival in the country, with a total economic impact of $25 million, according to a 2000 report released by the Greater Cincinnati Center for Economic Education at the University of Cincinnati.

Last summer, after the riots that followed the shooting of Timothy Thomas, 19, by a white police officer, the festival lost $550,000.

Coors Light, title sponsor for 11 years, announced its decision to drop the festival in January 2001 citing a change in marketing strategy. Santangelo was unable to sign a sponsor for 2002.

"I can certainly understand that nobody would want to wear a bull's-eye this year, which is what a sponsor would be wearing," Santangelo said.

With the boycott, no headliner is guaranteed, Santangelo said.

"A signed contract doesn't mean anything," he said. "Bill Cosby had a signed contract and, to my understanding, so did several of the other artists that canceled.

"If (the boycott organizers) view this as a victory, then shame on them. This isn't going to hurt the average person or the average business that's in Hyde Park or Mount Lookout or any other predominantly white area. It's going to impact the African-American businesses."

Santangelo plans a new festival in Detroit, and will continue to produce a festival in Hampton, Va. Washington worries that the Cincinnati festival will never be the same.

"It'll probably take 10 years to come back, if it ever does come back," he said. "Once people start going to other cities, Detroit, Indianapolis, they may never come back here."

Santangelo remains optimistic.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said. "I have what I think is a very loyal base of ticket buyers, a 30,000-name mailing list, an 800 number that's been in place for 12 years. I feel pretty good about the future."