Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Guitarist Jimmy Ponder (1946-2013)


I first met Jimmy when he was teaching at a jazz camp for high school students in Pittsburgh. I was 15, recently turned on to Wes Montgomery, and trying to make sense of the music. Ponder was the first guitarist I had heard in person who embodied the music. He poured himself through the instrument. The sound of his thumb on the Gibson Super 400 was rich, warm, lyrical, and immediate. It was as if he had a quartet in the palm of his hand.

I made sure to catch his sets around Pittsburgh where he worked regularly with bassists Mike Taylor, Dave Pellow, Dwayne Dolphin, Jeff Grubs, and Tony Depaolis, drummers Roger Humphries, Tom Wendt, and Alex Peck, and pianist Howie Alexander among many others. I remember his sets with Mike Taylor at the Church Brew Works. The duo, tucked into an apse of the converted church, would link up on a telepathic level. A grin would grow across Mike's face and Ponder would explode into laughter as they delved into "Misty," transforming the song into something neither had heard before.

It was years later that we began to sit down together to talk and play music. I would go up to his apartment in the hills above Pittsburgh's Northside and we would go over solo guitar techniques. He always put emotion at the forefront, "What is your purpose!" He listened very closely to what I had to say and play never shying from criticism or praise. After the lesson, he would cook and we'd listen to Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, and many other artists over a beer. Music is more than a structure to be learned, it is something you have to consume.

Jimmy was not protective of the stage or his guitar. Music was always something to be shared, not hoarded away for a few sets. Sitting in on a set was always a transformative experience. Jimmy's Super 400 had absorbed his energy over the decades and listened just as intently as he did. I always felt that my honesty was being tested. Was I really cutting out the bullshit and saying something? Last March we finally arranged to play a gig together. Ponder had cut his finger the day before and the bandage made playing impossible. He laughed off my attempts at putting a silicone wrap on the deep cut and ended up playing the evening with no bandage. It was a great honor sharing the stage with Jimmy and we made plans to do it again. Unfortunately, he fell sick not long after. Jimmy Ponder at James St. Tavern 2013.03.07

Ponder was both a sun and a storm. He carried a great weight on his shoulders from past regrets but also stood defiantly with a smile on his face. It came out in his music where deadly seriousness, jest, and joy met. He lived to express and lift the pain of others using his gift from God. We will miss his laughter, his stories, and his song.

 Photo compliments of Cafe Populart, Madrid, Spain

Photo by Deborah Feingold


Jimmy Ponder Interview 3

photos by Colter Harper


Michael said...

Thank you for sharing this. Jimmy will be sorely missed.

Phat Man Dee said...

Thanks for posting this. The world was richer for having known him, but sadder now that he is gone.

Douglas Harper said...

It's a powerful and poetic appreciation. You honor him and your friendship likely gave his complex life a lot of joy.

Jazzgitah said...

RIP Jimmy. Met him in 1967 in Atlanta when he was with Charlie Earland. He was very kind and helpful to me as a younger guitarist. I always enjoyed hearing him play....he was the real deal.

Doug Malone said...

Thanks for the great words on Jimmy. We were so fortunate to be dear friends AND students of this master. When I saw him on Labor Day he was speaking of the Fretboard Mag night at the James Street and how much it meant to him. The world (my world) will not be the same without James Willis Ponder.

Douglas Malone said...

"A note on a staff never moved anybody"
Jimmy Ponder
That last time I saw and sat with Jimmy in his apartment was a very poignant moment for me, and I believe for Jimmy as well. He had less than 2 months to live, and had been trying to keep his privacy, but he wanted to go home for a while and I ended up being called to come over after not being able to reach him for a long few months. All pretense was dropped that day as I told him that the thought of not being able to talk to him every day (we spoke at least once a day for years before he disappeared into a series of hospital rooms) made me sad. I then told him that I had realized that every time I picked up a guitar we would be having a conversation. He smiled and grabbed my hand. It wasn't the "Big Money Grip" that I used to kid him about, but it was a strong grip from a man who was dying and knew it. He then asked me to put Johnny Adams' "One Foot in the Blues" on the CD player and we listened for a bit in silence to that. Then I sensed his fatigue and told him how much I loved him, gave him a hug, and drove the 40 minutes home in a fog.
I did not know how long he had, but I knew it was not long. I never saw him again.
Nor did I know I would be diagnosed 3 years later with a rare, incurable blood disease that made it likely I would soon be able to once again touch this most complex man whom I missed so dearly every day since that last day in July of 2013.
It is with anticipation that I await that day.
Jimmy was, as Cool Hand Luke was, a "natural born world shaker". He sure as shootin' shook mine.