AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
In life and on stage with his Gibson Super 400 guitar, Jimmy Ponder was a force of nature because he blew people away. From the Hill District, to Manhattan, to Atlanta and beyond, he epitomized the Pittsburgh jazz guitar legacy.
He died Sept. 16 after battling cancer for more than a year. He was 67.
“Man, it’s a major loss. He was a phenomenal musician, a solid composers, a great singer, and just a really great guy,” said longtime friend and occasional collaborator Nelson Harrison.
“He played a week with us at the Crawford Grill in 1966, he was “Fats” Ponder then. To this day, people still talk about that gig. He will be dearly missed.”
Ponder, self-taught from the age of 11, left Pittsburgh with the Charles Earland Trio just seven years later, and as he said “never looked back.”
Living in New York City and Philadelphia, he toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy McGriff, and fellow Pittsburgher Stanley Turrentine, to name just a few. He returned home to Pittsburgh in 1990.
In addition to playing on more than 80 studio recordings for other artists, Ponder also recorded 11 albums under his own name, starting with 1974’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for Cadet Records. He released his final album and CD “What’s New” on HighNote in 2005.
Perhaps because he was naturally left handed, but played conventionally, and was self-taught, Ponder’s style was unique.
“I approach playing with a particular type of controlled madness,” he said in a 1995 interview for the Cincinnati Jazz Guitar Society. “When I’m doing my thing, I’m going to exude the qualities that I have worked to exhibit, and that is tone quality, projection, emotion, spirituality. That’s what reaches people.”
Ponder’s “controlled madness” was enhanced when he met, and impressed, Wes Montgomery in Atlanta about a year before his death in 1968. That’s when Ponder gave up using a pick and began emulating Montgomery’s style, then transformed it.
Guitarist Marty Ashby, head of MCG Jazz, said Ponder’s work was brilliant.
“He took Wes to a whole new level, harmonically, within that style—I’ve never heard anyone else do what he did,” Ashby said. “Jimmy was a genius. He is one of the most underrated masters of the last 30 years.”
Harrison said he saw Ponder just two weeks ago and that he was talking about beating his illness.
“He said he was in remission, and he still had that strong, strong handshake,” said Harrison. “It reminded me of riding through Manhattan on the Basie band bus and seeing Jimmy’s name in lights two-feet tall at some club and thinking all right, Jimmy has conquered New York.”
Despite his talent, and the respect in which other musicians held him, Ponder never became wealthy or particularly famous. But that didn’t bother him.
“If I die in poverty,” he once said. “I’ve had the best life can offer which is love, admiration and respect of my public and friends. You can’t ask for that. You can’t buy that.”