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Jean-Luc Ponty: Imaginary Voyages, Part 1

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At first I had no intention to play jazz on violin... But one day I didn't have my clarinet, no sax, I just had my violin, and I was coming out of a classical gig and I decided to jam anyway with it. And that's how I discovered I could play jazz on violin as well. And people liked it
—Jean-Luc Ponty
Part 1 | Part 2

Jazz is an art form that has been a singular hothouse of musical talent over the decades. There are, and have been, lots of not just great but brilliant players. But perhaps not unsurprisingly, there have been far fewer jazz originals. I mean by that, musicians whose playing has not only outshone most of their contemporaries, but continues to impact generations of players. We might well argue about who has been left out of this list, but it likely begins with Louis Armstrong, and moves through musicians like Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, and Michael Brecker.

Curiously, a name that should be in that list, but I deliberately left off to make a point, is jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. First of all, he's blue-eyed and foreign (to Americans anyway), and he plays the violin, which is not always considered by jazz musicians to be a "real" jazz instrument, so how good could he really be? But the more you think about it, the stranger that inattention becomes. Not only has Ponty revolutionized the way the violin is integrated into contemporary music, since the late 1960s his music has helped define jazz rock, and "world music" for violinists and non-violinists alike. Jazz critic Joachim Berendt wrote in The Jazz Book (Paladin, 1976) that, "Since Ponty, the jazz violin has been a different instrument."

M. Ponty turns 80 this year, and released a new album on the MPS label in February (2022). More on that in Part 2.

All About Jazz spoke to him recently, and yes, he is still playing, and still practicing. But we'll get to that in a minute. Like other musicians of his generation such as Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and George Coleman he is still a vibrant force to be reckoned with.

All About Jazz: Monsieur Ponty, thanks for talking with me. Is it OK to call you Jean-Luc?

Jean-Luc Ponty: Of course. That's my name. Go ahead.

AAJ: Thanks. The two names that most people immediately come up with when the conversation turns to jazz violin are Stephane Grappelli and yourself. That makes you a pretty iconic musician. I remember, for instance, listening to Frank Zappa's Hot Rats album back in 1969 when I was in college. There was Sugarcane Harris on one track, and you're on another, and I remember thinking, "What is that instrument?" It became obvious after a moment. But electric violin? It wasn't just that it was new, and loud and electronic sounding, what you played was music of the moment, not just more of that same old Django gypsy swing stuff, however well played it often is, of course. And on an almost heavy-metal rock album, no less? It feels like your career, international career anyway, really sort of tracks from that point even though at the time you were also playing violin in classical Symphony Orchestras and clarinet and saxophone in Paris jazz clubs just before that. How did it all came about?

JLP: You know, it's funny because when I started playing in Paris at the very beginning, I remember some Afro-American musicians [I met]. I remember one was an organ player. I forget his name. Oh goodness. And the other was the son of—I'm bad with names nowadays, but his father wrote the "St. Louis Blues."

AAJ: W.C. Handy.

JLP: Yeah. And both of them, you know, they were not together. It was at different times in different clubs, but they had the same reaction. They came to me asking, "Where did you learn to play like that?" I mean, the way I played the blues, it felt like I was a black guy from America. And they were looking at me, and I'm definitely very white, blue eyes. And I had no answer. What can I say? When I discovered that music I was, let's see, 16. Right. So I was 16 years old when I discovered what jazz was about, maybe in 1958, '59.

AAJ: A great year for some classic jazz records, of course.

JLP: Right. So the thing is, of course, the first thing I discovered was Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club recordings. And it was fantastic, I thought, very original. I started to listen to Grappelli, but very quickly, within months, I discovered the music of that time, which was post-bop.

AAJ: Kind of Blue, came out in '59 if I remember rightly...

JLP: Yeah. Coltrane had maybe just started his own band. I saw him in Paris in concert. It was maybe his second concert with his band. He had just left Miles Davis. So that was the kind of music [I really started to listen to]. And when I heard that, which harmonically was a lot more sophisticated than the swing style that Grappelli was part of—I mean, I still had an immense respect for the Django Reinhardt style—but, when I heard Coltrane that's what really spoke to me, you know, harmonically. And then I discovered the rhythm side of it. And, I guess I was like a sponge, you know, my brain at the time. Because there were no jazz schools in those days, anyway, just records and going out to clubs. So, I would wake up and have breakfast and I would put on an LP right away, all that modern jazz of the time. And, I would take my violin and play along with the record during the day. And then at night I would go jam in a jazz club. So, I did this for the first two years after I left the conservatoire. I was maybe 17 or 18 at this point. So that was 1960, 1961. [After leaving school,] I needed a job. So, I got hired as a violin player in the symphony orchestra in Paris. One evening, I was walking in a tuxedo after a classical concert to go to a jazz club to jam. And I had just discovered Stuff Smith. Although Stuff Smith was not really a bebop player, but there were times in a few spots where he sounded very much like one.

AAJ: Yeah, he was more of a swing player, but he had a different feel, a Black, more bluesy feel I guess you'd say, than Grappelli did.

JLP: Exactly. So I felt a lot of affinity with his style. That was an encouragement for me to just adapt the violin to modern jazz, like getting rid of the vibrato, the passionate European style, the gypsy vibrato that you hear so much on string instruments, especially the violin. So, I knew I had to get rid of that then, and adapt the same type of vibrato as Miles was using on his trumpet. And in fact, at the time [in Paris] there were different groups of jazz musicians. You know, those who were still playing the old style, the swing style, and there were specific clubs where all they had was swing style groups. And then there were a couple of other clubs which were exclusively booking modern jazz.

AAJ: I remember there was a club back then called Le Chat Qui Pêche, which was a small club, as I recall.

JLP: Ah yes. In a cellar.

AAJ: That's right.

JLP: And I played there in the late sixties. But my point was to say that there was a circle of modern jazz musician who had a prejudice against the violin...

AAJ: I don't think it's changed radically, though it's getting better. It's one of the things I wanted to talk with you about, so it's interesting you bring it up now.

JLP: Yeah, especially in big bands, most of the time. I did a couple of masterclasses at the Berkeley school of music in Boston, you know, and the violinists told me that some of the young students who wanted to go to play with the big band, you know, heard one of the horn players say, "oh, shit, not, another fiddler again." [We laugh together at this.]

AAJ: Yeah. I mean, my son plays jazz violin, and he's pretty single minded, as only a stubborn 19 year-old can be, that being a jazz violinist is exactly what he wants to be known as; and it's much, much better, but still, even in 2022 that attitude is still there. Which leads to an interesting point I wanted to ask you, which is that in doing this piece that I did ( for a brief history of jazz violin), I ended up talking to Rob Thomas whom I'm friends with who you know well (who pretty much helps run the jazz violin course at Berkeley], Regina Carter, Sara Caswell, [who also teaches at a bunch of schools including Manhattan School of Music and NYU], a young man in Poland...

JLP: Adam Baldych.

AAJ: Yeah, who's a pretty well-known [European] jazz violin player although he himself says I'm really not a jazz violinist anymore, I just play with jazz musicians. But nearly everyone, Regina particularly, said, "I really, sometimes don't even think of myself or always call myself a jazz violinist. I think of myself as an improvising violinist who plays jazz." And I find that distinction to be very interesting. And to a degree, I think in some ways it kind of heralds where jazz in general may be headed, just because of the different musical styles and influences that are now being brought into the music in order to open it up and keep it moving forward. And in some ways you are a pioneer of that kind of thinking. Or am I being, I don't know, either wrong or too cruel? I'm not sure.

JLP: No, no, it's true. That, well, I mean, it might sound pretentious, but it's not at all the way I feel. But I felt it first during the period we're talking about, when I just discovered modern jazz. I was looking for modern jazz violinists and there were none. I wanted to find out if there was someone I could listen to and be inspired by. And I found out there was not a single one who really played bebop or modern jazz of the time. So, anyway, I started thinking maybe it's not a good idea, maybe that's the reason. I don't know. But I also felt I could do it. Because I had started playing jazz on clarinet, in fact, and listening to horn players. You know, my influences in jazz were horn players starting with Clifford Brown, who I discovered before Miles Davis. Clifford Brown's phrasing I loved so much. And I reproduced it, first on clarinet, you know, and saxophone. Because at first I had no intention to play jazz on the violin. I was keeping up the instrument to play more jobs and just going out to play jazz with a band in university in Paris. But one day I didn't have my clarinet, no sax, I just had my violin, and I was coming out of a classical gig and I decided to jam anyway with it. And that's how I discovered I could play jazz on violin as well. And people liked it, it caught the audience somehow. Yeah. A lot more than when I was playing clarinet.

AAJ: It would have been a kind of a novelty in a way, I guess. I mean, not to the same degree, but I remember the kind of surprise I got listening to a guy called Rufus Harley, who played jazz bagpipes. And I actually saw him at Ronnie Scott's Club in London with Sonny Rollins. The weirdest instrument to hear jazz on.

JLP: Well, that's it! So when I would go on stage in a club, sometimes I would hear comments. "What is this now? Is it going to be tango, or what?" And then after they heard me play, they were, "oh wow. He can play modern jazz." And so I was quickly admitted among the circle of modern jazz musicians as one of them. And even when I arrived in the States, same thing. McCoy Tyner told me that I was the first one he heard [who could play modern jazz on a violin] and maybe at the beginning the only one, but later on, you know, the first one who understood what to do with the vibrato and make the violin sound adequate to play modern jazz.

AAJ: That's a really interesting comment, you know, because of the weird and assorted networks that we all have that, for instance, led me to do this interview. Anyway, my son's first long-term jazz violin teacher was a young man named Benjamin Sutin and he was the last student of John Blake. And John ended up playing with McCoy for a number of years. And I'm wondering if one had led to the other, that, you know, McCoy's experience with you led him to think about writing for the violin, and bringing in John.

JLP: Yeah, it could be. It could be, because John is from Philadelphia. And so was McCoy.

AAJ: The story I was told was that McCoy was talking about bringing a violin player into the band, maybe hiring you, and McCoy's bassist was also from Philly. And he said, because you know these guys from Philly look after each other, "I know this guy who, you know, is this great violin player, and by the way, he comes from Philly," and McCoy said, "Oh, really? Bring him in." And the rest is history.

JLP: Yeah, I know. I'm close friends with Stanley Clarke who is also from Philly. And so that's why I know, because there are so many —it's quite a long list of great musicians who come from that city. But you know, it's interesting what you told me about Regina and the violin. I'd like to come back to that because even though the violin is not, definitely, a major instrument in modern jazz and had to be adapted, it's still kind of rejected in the jazz world even today. In fact, it happened again to me, a few years ago in Paris. There was a jazz critic who was really against violin in jazz, and he heard me play and he said he was very surprised that he liked it the way I did it. I somehow convinced him that the instrument could be well adapted to jazz. But anyway, what was interesting about what Regina said, is that I've felt the same thing. It's that it can be limited in its acceptance in the jazz world. But on the other hand, it's an instrument on which you can play so many styles of music, which I found out pretty quickly, because I stopped playing strictly traditional jazz for seven years. I felt I was missing elements from my musical background and European background, which was mainly classical music.

And as a composer, my influences were mostly classical composers, impressionists, you know, Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, and Satie and so on, Stravinsky. And so I was missing that then. And I didn't know how to go about it until I arrived in California and got to meet Zappa and then later on John McLaughlin who was not in California, and different [musically], but who were not afraid to do whatever they felt their intuition told them to do musically. And not afraid to mix elements of different styles of music either. Big-time with Zappa, and McLaughlin as well whose influence was mostly Indian music, but who were also fond of classical music. You could hear that in some of their work. And that's what I understood. I said [to myself], that's the way, that's what I have to do. I just have to let my inspiration come through and write whatever comes to my mind, regardless of whether or not it sounds post-bop, because what I was writing at the time did not sound like jazz at all. I was coming up with structures and odd meters and changes of meters in the middle of tunes. And so meeting progressive rock musicians, and these bands at the time they were daring and exploring and experimenting, and they drew [music] from me. I said, that's it. I just write whatever I feel. And regardless of whether it fits in a specific type of music or not. And it was possible in those years, because in the late sixties, early seventies the leaders on the business side of music were passionate. They were either musicians themselves, or maybe not quite good enough to become professional, but at least passionate about music. And they would look for artists who were innovating, as opposed to what happened soon after.

AAJ: I think there's an argument to be made that by the time you were maturing as a musician, you know, as a young man, the extremes of the classical world were really approaching the extremes of the jazz world—free music and avant-garde. Zappa's an interesting example, as not many people know he was also a composer basically of neo-classical music [outside of his rock material]. The gap had started to close. I don't know whether you were conscious of that at all.

JLP: Not until later, because, I had an experience of playing with a symphony orchestra, a rare occasion, but I did first with Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and John McLaughlin. The first album I did when I joined his band was Apocalypse, which were his compositions orchestrated for symphony by someone else. We recorded in London, AIR studio, and George Martin produced it. And we did a concert in America before, too, as a test, to practice the music. And then again in the eighties, I was invited to play with the Montreal Symphony. Because it was their 50th anniversary, I think. And it was the 10th anniversary of the jazz festival. And so they joined forces. A few jazz artists played with the orchestra, it was Oscar Peterson and me, in fact. But all this is to say that I could still feel a kind of, not that great communication between me and the classical string players. I feel a big difference now because I started again and this time I did quite a good number of concerts with symphony orchestras since 2012. I think I started first in South America and then Germany, Russia all the way through Siberia. [It was great] just to see that younger generation of classical string players who were a lot more open and excited and interested in my playing, coming to talk to me. And so [I think] there's been an evolution, which is for me more recent, but it could very well have started in seventies and eighties because it's true that there was an atmosphere of artistic freedom. You know, it felt that if you were an innovator and coming up with music that would appeal to listeners, then you had a chance to make it. Now it's kind of different.

Continue to part 2...

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