FotoFocus Report: Behind the Scenes with Melvin Grier

The 74-year-old photographer behind 'Homage to a Sound' recently spoke to a group of grade-schoolers about his musical heroes at Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

click to enlarge Charlie Bunns Wilson at the Hyatt - Photo: Melvin Grier
Photo: Melvin Grier
Charlie Bunns Wilson at the Hyatt
Melvin Grier was at home Tuesday baking a tuna casserole when he got a call reminding him he was scheduled to speak at noon at Kennedy Heights Arts Center to grade-schoolers from Woodford Paideia Academy. The photographer behind Homage to a Sound, a tribute to jazz, had gotten his dates mixed up.  But like a great jam artist, he improvised, playing off his audience.  

Grier, a Cincinnati Post photojournalist for 33 years, ran through a slideshow of newspaper images the kids recognized, including sports stars Brandon Phillips and Muhammad Ali, before shifting the conversation to his less-familiar musical heroes and why they’re important to him. 

I was unaware that the students’ visit would coincide with my own.  But it was a hoot for me to just hang back and watch a local legend share what he loves. After all, Homage to a Sound is very much about such behind-the-scenes moments. 

Of course, audio recordings are what capture the actual sound of jazz. Grier’s 50-plus photos, nearly all shot in color, pay homage to the genre’s soul and sweat.  For the past nine years, he hung out backstage at local jazz clubs and outdoor venues with his camera, capturing musicians as they lugged equipment, tuned instruments and shifted through sheet music.  

There are photos of singers and instrumentalists on stage. But because of Grier, we notice the scuffs on the “drumming shoes” of Melvin Broach as he sets up his kit on Fountain Square. The photographer snapped the late, largely unknown saxophonist Snooky Gibson cutting hair during his day job in his Avondale barbershop, where he also kept a keyboard.  For another picture, Grier found trumpeter Mario Abney composing himself in a hallway before playing at the Hyatt Regency Cincinnati.

Leading a tour of the exhibit, Grier did his best to stress the importance of the musicians’ preparation to the agitated kids, joking, “If you talk to twenty-some young people, you should prepare first.”

But Grier’s photos are also about the joy of jazz, for the performers and the audience. Keigo Hirakawa’s face lights up at the piano in one image, and patrons dance at Urban Artifact in another. A sign from Schwartz’s Point begins, “A club is a haven.”

Grier, 74, told the younger generation of African-Americans that when he was in the Air Force in Alabama during the segregated 1960s, he needed something to revive and refresh him. Jazz – the music of his youth in the West End and Avondale – was it. If the students don’t understand now, they will someday.

“It gave so much to me. I wanted to give something back to the music, in particular the local musicians,” Grier told the kids. “I’m saying ‘thank you’ to the wonderful music they provide.”

HOMAGE TO A SOUND is up through Nov. 12 at Kennedy Heights Arts Center, 6546 Montgomery Road. Grier will hold an artist talk 2 p.m. on Oct. 22. More info:

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