Soul-Jazz guitarist Jimmy Ponder is well known to serious jazz lovers for his recordings as a leader and appearances as a sideman on 80 albums. His unique bluesy sound, which incorporates Wes Montgomery’s approach of playing octaves with the thumb, has influenced other guitarists. Ponder’s playing is described as aggressive rhythm-and-blues figurations with swift and lucid chromatic bop lines. Jimmy has released 21 albums since 1969 as a leader on the Muse, Highnote, Cadet, Explore, and LRC labels. He reached the Billboard Top Jazz Album charts with his best selling releases “Ain’t Misbehavin’ at #16 in 2000 and “All Things Beautiful” at #38 in 1978. Ponder began his national career playing with fiery organist Charles Earland and saxophonist’s Lou Donaldson soul-jazz ensembles. As an in demand sideman Ponder has recorded with Etta Jones, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jimmy McGriff, Donald Byrd, Ray Bryant, Stanley Turrentine, B.J. Thomas, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Irene Reid, and others. He has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Hank Crawford, Jack McDuff, and Sonny Stitt.
“I happen to be a very aggressive guitarist. I don't regard the guitar as a singular - it is an orchestra.” – Jimmy Ponder
“I approach playing with a particular type of controlled madness.” – Jimmy Ponder
"Pittsburgh is a blessed with so many great musicians. Jimmy Ponder continues this great tradition by being one of the finest jazz guitarists in the country." - Tony Mowod producer/jazz host.
“One of the great pioneers of the guitar coming out of Pittsburgh -- he and George Benson." - Roger Humphries
Learning Guitar in Pittsburgh
Jimmy Ponder, who was born on May 10th 1946 in Pittsburgh, grew up in the Beltzhoover neighborhood. Ponder’s older brother left a guitar behind when he went into the Marines in 1960. Ponder picked up his brother’s guitar at age 11. A guitarist from a Doo-Wop band gave Ponder his first lesson. Teaching himself by ear Ponder practiced an average six hours a day. He learned the music of Bo Diddley. Late at night Ponder listened to jazz guitar music played on the Rochester radio station WHAM by DJ Harry Adam. He learned the songs that he heard on the radio by ear practicing them the next day after school. Ponder’s major influences were Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell.
Learning quickly Ponder played his first professional gig at age 11 and was performing in Pittsburgh clubs by age 13. He won citywide talent shows at Knoxville Junior High School and Schenley High School. While in junior high Ponder’s sang in a “Doo-Wop” group and later played guitar in R&B bands. But the soul band fired him for playing too jazzy. At age 16 Ponder set his sights on being a jazz guitarist. He began playing jazz in Pittsburgh with Sam Person’s avante garde group Sam Person and the Players. The Players lineup: Sam Person - leader/alto and baritone sax, George Green - tenor sax, Nelson Harrison - trombone, Jimmy "Fats" Ponder - guitar, Eugene "Woody" Smith - bass and Robin Horseley - drums. They played a week at the Crawford Grill #2 in 1966 that remains unforgettable by those who were there. Ponder also performed with the Bobby Jones Trio and the Jimmy McGriff Trio.
Joining the Charles Earland Trio
Told that if he could not satisfy the patrons of one Pittsburgh’s Northside clubs, they might beat him up, Ponder took on the challenge at age 15 playing a solo gig and won them over. He took on another challenge in 1963 when jazz organist Charles Earland’s trio appeared at Pittsburgh’s Hurricane club. The 16 year old Ponder who had learned the solo from Earland’s “Daily Dozen” song asked the Hurricane’s owner Birdie Dunlap if he could sit in with Earland’s trio. Birdie consented and Ponder played the “Dirty Dozen” with Earland. Impressed Earland offered him a job. Ponder turned down him saying his mother would not let him leave town until he got his high school diploma.. Earland returned to Pittsburgh in 1966 and asked Ponder “Are You ready to go?”. Ponder who had graduated from South Hills High School joined Earland trio going on the road to begin his long jazz career.
Ponder took on the challenge of traveling to other cities to play for people who never heard of him. He performed Charles Earland for three years. Earland took him to live and play in jazz clubs of of Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey. They went on the road playing the Chitlin Circuit at African-American jazz clubs in Atlanta, Harlem, Newark, Atlantic City and New Haven. It was the soul-jazz era of the Hammond B3 organ backed by guitar, drums and sometimes a tenor sax or vocals. Traveling to venues in other cities gave has Ponder to meet and learn from other skilled musicians.
Meeting Wes Montgomery
While Ponder was appearing with Earland in Atlanta, he saw Wes Montgomery performing with his brothers in "The Master Sounds" band. The nervy 18 year old Ponder asked if he could sit in. Montegomery gave him his guitar and let him play a Kenny Burrell tune "Chitlins Con Carne". After the set Montgomery told Ponder "Yeah, I like what you are doing." Montgomery went to see Ponder play with Earland several times sitting right in front of the band stand. In an interview Ponder said “my heart was ready to jump out of my throat” while Montgomery watched him. Montgomery became a supporter. After Montgomery’s death, Ponder learned from an Atlantic Records executive, that Montgomery had told her that Ponder was his legacy and would carry on his form, expression, and approach.
Club and Recording Work
In between gigs with Earland Ponder played with other groups including Hammond B3 pioneer Jimmy Smith. Ponder played five hours a night six or seven nights a week. On Sundays he played matinees for four hours, took a dinner break and played five more hours. Ponder became an in demand recording session player in the late 1960’s. He made his first appearance on Lou Donaldson’s 1967 release “Mr-Shing-A-Ling”. In 1968 he recorded on two Stanley Turrentine albums along with performances on albums by Big John Patton and Andrew Hill. He recorded “Soul Crib” with Charles Earland on Choice Records in 1969. Ponder left Earland’s Trio in 1969 moving to Newark to perform in a band group led by Joe Thomas from 1969 to 1972. In the early '70s he moved to Harlem from Philadelphia to leading his own groups. He performed at the Other End, the Vanguard and other top New York clubs.
Ponder released his first solo album “While My Guitar Gently Weeps: on Cadet Records in 1973. One of his most popular albums “All Things Beautiful” was released on LRC records in 1978. He released two albums on ABC Music ‘Illusions” (1976_ and “White Room” (1978) and “So Many Stars” on Milestones Records in 1983. Beginning in 1987 Ponder recorded five albums for the prestigious Muse Label. Moving to Highnote Records in 1997 he released 7 albums including his most popular Ain't Misbehavin' (2000), Thumbs Up (2001), Alone (2003), What's New (2005), and Somebody's Child (2007).
Ponder also recorded many other artists. Among the recordings are seven with Jimmy McGriff (1972 through 2000), three with Etta Jones (1977, 1998, 2003), three with Charles Earland (1977, 78. 2003), “Straight Ahead with Turrentine (1984), two with Dr, Lonnie Smith (2000, 2007), three with Lou Donaldson (1996,1998, 2005) and two with Groove Holmes (1988–1989). He most recent session recording was with Fred Woodard in 2009.
Return to Pittsburgh
Ponder returned to Pittsburgh in 1990 where he led a trio with drummer Roger Humphries. He became at artist-in-residence at Duquesne University. He continued to record and work in jazz venues around the country. He released 7 albums on the High Notel label from 1997 through 2007. Ponder released the album "Steel City Blues" in 2010 on the Savoy Jazz label