Wednesday, September 18, 2013

R.I.P.: Jimmy Ponder

(born May 10, 1946 - died September 16, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Just heard the sad news about Jimmy Ponder's passing at age 67. I was introduced to Ponder's artistry through Lonnie Smith's "Mama Wailer" LP, recorded in 1971 for Creed Taylor's Kudu label. Curiously, exactly fourty years later I had the honor to produce, in 2001, a CD reissue of that album, having remastered it from the original master tapes, and having invited the renowned jazz historian Douglas Payne to write the liner notes. Ponder's performance on the 17-minute long album centerpiece "Stand," the classic tune by Sly Stone, is simply stunning.

Later on, I listened to the dates he did for Milestone in the early 80s, as a sideman with Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff, as well as on two Bob Porter-produced albums that Ponder recorded as a leader in 1983 and 1984: "Down Here On The Ground" (yes, the same title of that famous Wes Montgomery LP for A&M/CTI, titled after the Lalo Schifrin tune written for the "Cool Hand Luke" movie soundtrack) and "So Many Stars" (titled after Sergio Mendes' gorgeous bossa-ballad).

Ponder also often recorded & performed with such artists as Charles Earland, Houston Person, Etta James, Joe Thomas and Stanley Turrentine. Rest in Peace.

Below is the link for an insightful obituary.

And here's the link for a great Jimmy Ponder discography compiled by jazz connoisseur Doug Payne, who also wrote these words:

JIMMY PONDER is one of jazz's finest and most consistent, however consistently underrated, guitarists. He sprang onto the national scene in the late 1960s as a session player in the august company of Lou Donaldson, Johnny Hodges and fellow Pittsburgher Stanley Turrentine. He has also worked extensively - and most effectively -with such organists as Charles Earland and Jimmy McGriff. Self taught and exceedingly melodic, Ponder possesses a beautifully mellifluous tone and knows how to swing a tune, particularly a funkyone. 

Ponder derives his style from his greatest influence, Wes Montgomery; however, he most often resembles the sound - and occasional singing - of George Benson, another fellow Pittsburgher. Though it's worth stating there is nothing imitative about Jimmy Ponder. One listen to his best solos (Turrentine's "Buster Brown", John Patton's "I Want To Go Home", Jimmy McGriff's "Pisces" or Houston Person's "Preachin' and Teachin'", for example) and you know you're in the hands of a practiced practitioner, a consummate communicator and a master musician. 

As someone who grew up and spent most of his formative years in Pittsburgh, I'm partial to my hometown heritage. I'm very proud to be from the same city that produced Stanley Turrentine, Horace Parlan, George Benson, Art Blakey, the subject of this discography, Jimmy Ponder, and so many, many other wonderful and enduring musicians and artists. I had the pleasure of attending the University of Pittsburgh, where Nathan Davis often presented concerts that allowed me to hear local and international jazz talents, and my first real "career" job was a college internship in the PR department at WQED, which placed me right next door to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, home to guitarist Joe Negri and pianist Johnny Costa - the very folks who introduced me to jazz. The outline below comes from WQED's Multimedia site from an article that originally appeared in Pittsburgh magazine (with credit due to the writer). Enjoy!

North Side bassist Dwayne Dolphin calls him "a Pittsburgh treasure." North Side drummer Roger Humphries calls him "one of the great pioneers of the guitar coming out of Pittsburgh -- he and George Benson." They're both speaking of internationally known guitarist Jimmy Ponder.

"Jimmy has been recognized in jazz circles all over the world and has been a major influence on a lot of the young players I have run into. Many of them emulate his style," agrees North Side-based and nationally recognized jazz organist Gene Ludwig.

The respect that some young musicians have for Ponder was captured in a recent letter he received from a former student, Ofer Ganor, now living in Tel Aviv: "You have been and will continue to be a wellspring of inspiration in my life as a musician and as a human being." Ganor had been with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music and had come to Pittsburgh to study under the self-taught Ponder, who has taught and played internationally, nationally and locally (at Duquesne University).

Ponder's roots in music go back to his days growing up in Beltzhoover, where he played with R & B groups as a teenager. He recalls winning citywide talent shows at both Knoxville Junior High School and Schenley High School (though he later graduated from South Hills High School). He got the jazz bug from staying at night and listening to the guitar sounds of Wes Montgomery, his musical hero.

"Wes Montgomery always has been and always will be my greatest musical influence," Ponder says, and recalls a 1960s session. "I sat seven feet from Wes and witnessed unbelievable guitar-playing. It changed my whole concept in jazz guitar-playing."

You can still catch Ponder locally. He plays a solo engagement on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Church Brew Works. He usually appears at The James Street Tavern on a monthly basis with bassist Mike Taylor and drummer George Heid.

"Pittsburgh is a blessed with so many great musicians," says Tony Mowod, executive producer/jazz host at WDUQ and our Harry Award winner in 2000. "Jimmy Ponder continues this great tradition by being one of the finest jazz guitarists in the country."

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