Originally published in the March, 1995 issue of the newsletter of the Cincinnati Jazz Guitar Society.
Jimmy Ponder, 48 years of age, is well known among serious lovers of jazz guitar. He has played with many of the finest jazz musicians of the era including Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine, Groove Holmes, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Hank Crawford, Jimmy MacGriffe, Jack McDuff, and Sonny Stitt.
He began playing at age 11 and is a self-taught musician. While he did not attend college, he now teaches at several colleges and is an artist-in-residence at Duquesne University. Even though he is a south paw, Ponder learned to play right handed. He began his musical life playing "doo-wop" music, and his earliest influences included The Temptations and early Stevie Wonder.
He quickly fell in love with jazz and has played jazz exclusively for almost all of his professional life. His played his first professional gig at age 11, and was playing clubs in Philadelphia regularly by age 13. He has played on approximately 80 albums in his life.
He now records for Muse Records, and has released four albums including Come On Down which earned a four star review in Downbeat magazine and remained on the jazz charts for several months.
Jimmy speaks in long flowing paragraphs that unfortunately do not lend themselves well to the confined space of a published interview. The first part of this interview is the standard question and answer format. The last part is a collection of memorable quotes gleaned from the interview.
TB: Did you work much when you were young?
JP: I would always make it a point to try to work as much as possible, regardless of what I knew.
I would take whatever I did know everywhere with me. More times than not I would fall flat on my face if it was a jazz engagement. There were clubs on the north side here in Pittsburgh, when I was 15 or 16, where I was told that if I didn't play to the crowd's satisfaction, I might get beat up. And I took the engagement anyway and I played.
TB: How much did you practice as a kid?
JP: When I was a kid I would practice an average of six hours a day. And I continued that when I went on the road. Charles Earland came through Pittsburgh it was 1963. He came to The Hurricane with the Charles Earland trio. And the guitar player was asleep on the job and I had gotten a copy of his latest 45 entitled "Daily Dozen" and I learned the guitar solo backwards and forwards. And Bertie Dunlap, who was at the time the owner of The Hurricane, she allowed me to play and I sat in and I played that song to death for Charles Earland. And I told him "My mother is not gonna let me go out of town until I get my diploma. So 2 years later, he came back. He said "Are you ready to go?" and I said "Yes, indeed". And I never looked back until four and 1/2 years ago, when I moved back to Pittsburgh.
TB: You had very little formal training?
JP: None. None whatsoever. I've had only one guitar lesson and that was in around '66 from a guitarist that worked with Jimmy MacGriffe name Thornell Schwartz. He had me come over to his place one afternoon and I sat and I listened and I learned a great deal. And that was the only lesson I have ever had.
Other than that I've sat and I've listened and deciphered and I've taught myself. But also that's kind of selfish. The world teaches you whether you want the lesson or not. The more people you work with the more you're exposed to and you take that home and you put that into your scheme of things.
TB: Are you a good reader?
JP: No. I haven't done a lot of reading studio work or stage shows where you have to read, so consequently my reading is not a particularly high level. But I do teach basic fundamental reading to any guitar player who comes into my presence to deal with studying. I teach them how to teach themselves how to read.
TB: Do you now play exclusively for a living?
JP: I try to make a decent living playing the music and dealing with the performance side of it and then to teach and then writing and recording. Everything supplements everything and it's still not enough.
TB: I think it's interesting that a player at your level has to teach to supplement the income.
JP: Well like I said, it's still not enough. I live below the poverty level and that is a travesty. It is a terrible thing because I know what I do with the guitar and there's no guitar player that's aware of jazz that is not aware of me. But my time is coming as long as I persevere and continue doing good things. I got into it loving it and you're never paid for what you love. You're never paid what you're worth.
TB: Do you like recording?
JP: I love it. Recording is quite a challenge. If you're not prepared, the recording equipment will let you know. If you are prepared it's like nothing else in the world - it's like having a baby.
I put everything I have into the music, and hopefully the spirituality about my music is what prevails. It's not the mathematics of it or the articulation, in so far as dealing with the amount of notes I can play within a given span of time. It is how it feels to the people that hear the music. How it makes them feel. That is my purpose - to please.
TB: Do you ever use a pick when you play?
JP: 18 years ago, yeah. Until I saw Wes, I was using a pick. I was a speed freak after hearing Pat Martino and George Benson at The Hurricane. I only saw George one time with Jack McDuff and it was amazing. I had been working towards that long before because I had listened to a radio station from Rochester, WHAM. Harry Abrahms would play guitarists from Europe and from all over the country and I would listen all night, every night till the wee hours, get up and go to school, come home and practice what I could retain from listening to the radio.
TB: And when you heard Wes play, you stopped using a pick?
JP: When I heard "The man is not using a pick," I said, "Yeah, Right." While I was working with Charles Earland we did a job in Atlanta. And Wes and his brothers, "The Master Sounds" were working at another club. I went over to the club to hear this man and ended up sitting in. I had the nerve at 18 to sit in on Wes's gig. His brothers were insulted, but I had a whole rhythm section with me and I played a Kenny Burrell tune called "Chitlins Con Carne" on Wes's guitar. I had to touch his guitar and hope that something out of that guitar would seep into my bones, and it did. He heard me play and came up to the stage and said, "Yeah, I like what you are doing." He would come over to the club I was playing after he was done and he would sit right in front of the band stand. He would sit there and have his breakfast and my heart was ready to jump out of my throat.
Years later, he brought people up to Harlem to the Club Baron. One lady worked for Atlantic records. She was a good friend of Wes's. He told her about hearing me in Atlanta. And he told her that I was his legacy. I would carry on his form - his expression of the music and the approach. She didn't tell me that until after he passed.
TB: Do you, at your level, get excited when you are around a big name player like, say, Phil Woods?
JP: Well, it is all about mutual respect. I have earned the right to be around whomever I'm around. I wouldn't care who it is - it could be the Pope.
Some Memorable Ponderisms
Great artistry comes from people of great humility.
I am here first and foremost to take care of people's feelings. If I am playing for them, I will take them to another place where they don't feel their pain or their sorrows or their anxieties for a moment in time.
I happen to be a very aggressive guitarist. I don't regard the guitar as a singular - it is an orchestra.
I approach playing with a particular type of controlled madness.
I don't care what race of people, what culture of people or where they are located. Let me play for you. That is my conviction.
If you're a professional, you put your ego aside and you say to who ever's in charge "What do you need from me?"
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 is what reaches people.
I'm not here to please mathematicians or statisticians or mechanical afficianados. I am here to play for ordinary people. Let me play for you and satisfy your soul. That is my purpose.
People relate very quickly to the human voice, especially the ladies. If the ladies don't buy the albums, don't wait for the dudes. The dudes follow the ladies. That's why George Benson sings so many romantic songs.
If I die in poverty, I've had the best life can offer which is love, admiration and respect of my public and my friends. You can't ask for that. You can't buy it.
© 2002 - 2015, Tim Berens