Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Jazz fest's 40-year run interrupted

Promoter to try again for 2003

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        With no corporate sponsor, possible headliner cancellations and drastically slumping ticket sales, producer Joe Santangelo will notify city officials today that he is canceling Cinergy Field's 2002 Jazz Festival, Cincinnati's largest and longest-running annual concert.

        “It's just not possible to pull anything off this year,” Mr. Santangelo said in his new, scaled-down office in Oakley. “The only thing you're going to do is upset people even further and lose a whole lot of money in the process.”

        He calls the cancellation a “hiatus” and hopes to bring back the festival in 2003 at the Great American Ball Park.

        “It's a huge victory,” said Amanda Mayes, a spokeswoman for Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and head of Artists of Conscience, the organization's arm working to performers not to appear in Cincinnati.

        The first cancellation in the 40-year history of the festival will have a broad impact on the local and regional economy.

        “It really does hurt,” said James Washington, owner of Washington Limousine Service in Walnut Hills. The African-American-owned company has handled limousine services for the festival for 25 years. Mr. Washington 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. Only 500 tours sold in 2001. This year, it was down to 200.

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

        But that was before the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas, by police and the subsequent riots in April 2001. Last summer's 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. Mr. 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,” Mr. Santangelo said.

        With no corporate support and his older, group-sales buyers dwindling, Mr. Santangelo became dependent on headliner-driven, single ticket sales. This year, no headliner is guaranteed.

        “A signed contract doesn't mean anything,” Mr. Santangelo said. “Bill Cosby had a signed contract and, to my understanding, so did several of the other artists that canceled (due to the boycott).”

        “If (the boycott organizers) view this as a victory, then shame on them,” Mr. Santangelo said. “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.”

        The impact of the cancellation concerns Mr. Washington.

        “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.”

        This summer, the Santangelo Group will produce a new festival in Detroit and continue to produce a festival in Hampton, Va.

        Artists who may have played the fest are being booked outside Cincinnati. Usher, an act Mr. Santangelo was negotiating with, will play Riverbend in Anderson Township on June 7.

        National music industry watchers expect to see more R&B acts avoid Cincinnati.

        “If I'm managing an artist who has a largely black audience, you have to recognize that there may be some political problems with playing there,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the California-based concert industry trade magazine.

        Mr. 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.”


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