Jimmy Ponder: His Recorded Output


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Jazz history has been intimately tied to its recorded output. Styles and genres are defined by landmark records, which stand responsible for representing the diffuse activities and artistic visions of a given musical community or individual. However, recordings are not simply glimpses of past musical realities but rather images of those realities filtered through various "lenses." The restrictions of technology, interests of record companies, personalities of record producers, and versatility of musicians all affect what is presented as the musical reality of an individual artist and time period. Scholar Jed Rasula notes that "recordings have the status of an impressive testimony that is, regrettably for the historian, a secondary substitute for the 'living presence' of actual performance."89 There is a danger when creating jazz history from commercial recordings for the interpreter must contend with the processes of recording that set the end product apart from live performance.

There are two general shortcomings encountered when recreating an artist-centered history of jazz from recordings. The first is that the centrality of improvisation is undermined through the reification of specific moments, giving emphasis to performance (music as sound) over the processes enabling the performance (music as a social process). Copious transcriptions are created in an attempt to understand the musical experience and uncover the musical identity of the "master" performer giving the impression that the recreation of sound is the recreation of a creative experience.

The second shortcoming is historiographical in that it concerns the conceptualization of stylistic change. Rasula notes that it is "a sign of systematic misconception that a music celebrated for its improvisatory character is viewed chiefly as an example of developmental progress."91 Recordings create an evolutionary understanding of jazz history by providing concrete objects through which stylistic developments are traced. However, as an art that derives meaning and form from social processes, jazz does not evolve into a more meaningful expression as time passes. Rather, the music changes, therefore maintaining its function as a means through which individuals identify themselves as well as their place within society.

In the following two sections, I compare Ponder's recording and performance experiences so to explore processes outside of artistic creation that shape albums. Ponder, like many other creative artists, has faced recording both as an extension of their creative life and a means to make a living. At the center of this dichotomy is the widely addressed conflict of economic and creative interests, a concept central to most discussions concerning musician integrity and creative authenticity. In producing a viable commodity, Ponder has faced the task of communicating his musical voice, or creating an original and meaningful musical experience, within the constraints of commercial interests. Ultimately, recording becomes an important element in shaping one's musical identity because it is more widely consumed than live performance and hence more widely representative of one's playing abilities. However, I hope to show that commercial recordings subject musicians to different creative processes and hence form creative identities apart from those developed in live performances.


Since the early 1970s, Ponder has recorded as a bandleader for an array of record labels that specialize in jazz and "cross over" music. For Ponder, recording has provided a key source of income as well as a means for exposure. However, as a specialist with an artistic vision, he has, like so many other recording artists of the time, struggled with record producers over creative license. Often there exists a conflict of ideals in the process of recording that shapes the final product. In these cases, the artist must negotiate recording as income and recordings as representatives of creative output. When recording for income, the goal becomes the production of a hit or breakout album. In Ponder's case, several precedents existed as models for success, which producers utilized in hopes of achieving similar results. However, they failed to bring equal exposure.

Wes Montgomery provided the first model of success that was used by record producers in recording Ponder. Montgomery's cross-over recordings, where he played melodies to contemporary hit pop songs with added orchestral arrangements, were a departure from his small ensemble work though they still captured the essence of his approach to guitar. Producers used songs by groups such as the Beatles and Little Anthony and the Imperials to feature Montgomery's smooth sound and signature octave melodies. Improvised sections were either dropped or kept to a minimum to cut down on the song length. Musicians and devoted jazz fans viewed these recordings as a sacrifice of artistic vision for income. What they enabled, however, was greater exposure to earlier records through increased demand for reissues and recognition across a wider audience.

Guitarist George Benson, who paired Montgomery's clean tone with a rhythm and blues and gospel influenced singing style, served as the second model. During the 1960s, Benson was recognized for his prowess as an improviser in small hard-bop instrumental groups. Through the 1970's, Benson produced vocal hits that featured his singing and pop sensibilities. Songs such as "This Masquerade" and "On Broadway" became signature hits that exposed Benson to a larger listening audience while also demonstrating his abilities as an improvising musician. While Benson and Montgomery have been widely recognized as innovative guitarists, both have been criticized for their commercial successes. Jazz historian Ted Gioia notes Benson's mid-1970s successes as a vocalist as "a success that threatened to obscure his talent as a soloist in a Wes Montgomery vien."

Ponder, in his early years of recording, followed a similar path in that he established a reputation as a versatile sideman, which led to commercial recording work as a leader. In the late 1960s, Ponder recorded as a sideman with such artists as Charles Earland, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Andrew Hill, Big John Patton, and Johnny Hodges. On these recordings, Ponder proved to be equally adept at playing R&B influenced soul jazz as he was at big band and bebopinspired straight ahead. On Byrd's Fancy Free (1969) and John Patton's Mosaic recordings, Ponder's solos are marked by an aggressive, yet harmonically uncomplicated, approach that reveals a training history on the bandstand as well as sensitivity to the blues. Using a pick, Ponder sounds like a younger and rawer version of George Benson and Pat Martino as he builds improvisations around repetitive, double-time licks and searing, single-line melodies laid over mid-tempo swing and shuffle grooves. On veteran saxophonist Johnny Hodges' Rippin and Runnin' (1968), Ponder gives more attention to harmonic movement and melodic development in his improvisations. On the extended composition "Moonflower," Ponder forgoes the pick for his thumb, taking a spacious and laid back solo that complements Hodges' loose phrasing and clear tone. Behind Hodges' solo, Ponder regularly interjects thematic jabs with block chords, dialoguing with drummer Freddie Waits and organist Willie Gardner while bassist Ron Carter creates a steady backdrop. On Lou Donaldson's Say it Loud (1968), Ponder "chickn' picks" over the medium Meters-esque funk, opting for a twangy, punchy sound characteristic of funk guitarists. The song is somewhat politically charged beginning with the band shouting "Say it Loud," to which Ponder interjects a three note riff followed by the band response: "I'm Black and I'm Proud." The song follows the twenty-four bar ABA form with Donaldson, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and Ponder taking extended solos. Like contemporary mainstream funk, the song is targeted at audiences that want to dance or just "groove" in a social environment, though "Say it Loud" distinguishes itself as crossover by featuring long improvisations.

What becomes clear from this cursory look at Ponder's early work as a sideman is a proficiency in several adjoining eras of African-American popular music. Depending on the needs of the occasion, Ponder may reach back to the feel and orchestral sensitivity of Ellington and Basie's big bands, into the blues styling of singers such as Ruth Brown, the drive and popular appeal of 1950s doo-wop and R&B groups, or the "pocket" of late 1960s and early 70s funk groups. Ponder, however, is not a strict "session player" yet is versatile at providing a number of styles in a recording session. Rather, Ponder's creative voice is defined by a conscious emphasis of those traits similar to all of the above mentioned styles, namely the drive of a cyclical pulse, attention to the expressive capacities of a melody, call and response phrasing, thematic use of dynamics, and the emphasis of audience-performer interaction in creating the music. In any musical setting, Ponder strives foremost to express these traits, none of which can be ascribed to any one style or any one approach to performing. Though Ponder's recordings, particularly during the 1970s, often reflect the various labels' commercially motivated interests, his creative voice and conceptual approach have remained continuous.

Ponder's early records as a leader are the most commercially oriented, reflecting a compositional orientation towards contemporary rock and a sensibility to funk as it was shaped by such artists as James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone. Guitarists Montgomery and Benson, while providing a crossover template, also led producers to seek other contemporary popular music from which to draw. Ponder's first record, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, was recorded in 1973 by Cadet records and includes a collection of instrumental pieces heavily colored by funk, disco, and rock and roll. The opening track is an elaborately orchestrated song that largely obscures Ponder's accompanying abilities under layers of string and horns. The arranger spared the orchestration during Ponder's solo, where he attacks the one chord vamp with a torrent of gutsy blues riffs and lines. The second track, in common programming fashion, sets the mood apart from the opening track by presenting a saccharine, love-ballad. This piece exploits Ponder's thick tone, melodic sensitivity, skill with octaves, as well as his ability to build a solo over the simplest of chord changes. These traits would come to be key identifying traits in Ponder's musical voice for as his harmonic and melodic language developes, he continues to maintain the primacy of "feel," "groove," and dynamics over theoretical complexity. The rest of the album forgoes any feels associated with traditional jazz, namely swing. The exception is the jazz standard "I Only Have Eyes For You," which is rendered as a medium tempo pseudo-Latin jazz arrangement. In the recording, there is ample room for Ponder to experiment with the melody and maintain a creative dialogue with bassist Bob Cranshaw though the use of strings to fill sonic space and double the melody draw attention away from the interactive dynamic of the group giving the recording a mundane quality.

Ponder notes that the producer selected the songs and musicians though he was responsible for arranging the songs after which separate orchestral string parts were added. This was problematic because Ponder was unable to read or write music and was faced with a limited time in the studio. Roland Hanna, a friend and pianist on the session, aided Ponder in organizing the parts for the other musicians by writing charts and directing the band. The producer also influenced the sound of Ponder's guitar. On the title track, Ponder uses a wah-wah pedal and distortion to recreate an impression of the original Beatles rendition. Being unfamiliar with the original, Ponder improvises for the duration of the three and a half minute track leaving the melody for Hanna and the string orchestrator. Ponder's version is faster and brings a heavier funk "feel" to the backbeat. As he recalls, he argued with the producer to replace the session's original bassist with someone whom he felt understood how to play "commercial" funk. The result is a glimpse of a familiar song as conceived and created by a commercially minded record producer as well as a jazz guitarist with sensibilities to contemporary popular music. Ponder was paid "three to four thousand" for the recording session and says he was "thrilled to death" with the results. For him, the record was successful because of the musician's abilities to play "funky" and the "power" of the orchestra behind his playing.

For the next ten years, Ponder recorded as a leader for New York based labels ABC Impulse, Lester Radio Corporation, and Milestone from which seven albums were released. In addition to this, Ponder appeared as a sideman with Charles Earland, Willis "Gator" Jackson, Etta Jones, Jimmy McGriff, Houston Person, Sonny Phillips, Shirley Scott, Joe Thomas, Stanley Turrentine and Mickey Tucker amongst others. Ponder's two albums for ABC Impulse, Illusions (1976) and White Room (1977), resemble While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1973) in that they are heavily funk influenced, feature both originals and covers of popular hits, and include string arrangements on top of the core band. The Motown hit "Do It Baby" (recorded in 1974 by the Miracles) opens the second side of Illusions and features Ponder rendering the melody and taking a solo with a wah-wah pedal, which was popularized by rock guitarists Jimi Hendrix and later Eric Clapton. Similarly programmed, White Room opens the second side with another "chart topper," this one taken from the British rock group Cream's 1968 album Wheels of Fire. In both cases, producer Esmond Edwards increased the recognizability of the album by including covers from the most commercially successful contemporary genres. For crossover albums, achieving a hit on the U.S. charts could be accomplished this way, just as it had been done with Wes Montgomery's version of "Going Out Of My Head," though there was also the chance of having a hit original single. Hoping to capitalize on the success of guitarist George Benson's singing, Edwards opens White Room with Ponder's original "If You Need Someone To Love," on which Ponder both sings and plays. Ponder's experiences singing in doo-wop and R&B groups becomes apparent as he renders the love song with the stylistic inflections and melodic treatment of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye.

Ron Carter, a veteran jazz bassist and previous member of Miles Davis' mid-1960s quintet, appears on Illusions, infusing the funk and Latin jazz influenced songs with a more traditional jazz sensibility. On the R&B ballad "Jennifer," Carter and Ponder exploit their fullbodied, acoustic sound, forgoing electronic effects and using hollow body instruments. The group stretches the Ponder original to nine minutes, long over the average length of most popular releases created for airplay, and features extensive soloing by Ponder. Here, Ponder can be heard using his thumb technique to bring out a singing quality in the spacious melody and improvise with octaves. "Jennifer" is longer in form and more harmonically complex than the other tracks showing Ponder's adeptness at "playing changes" and not relying on blues guitar clichés to propel his solos. The album concludes with a Ron Carter original, which features himself and Ponder (later to become the resident guitar-bass duo at Manhattan's club Sweet Basil) with percussionist Eddie "Bongo" Brown. The song is slow and wandering with elements of Spanish and Brazilian music mix with American blues. Stripped of the keyboard, drums, and horns, Ponder shows his developing strength as an orchestrator on the guitar, effortlessly shifting between block chords, octaves, and melodic lines all the while maintaining solid control of the slow pulse. Ponder's ability to simultaneously fill the roles of various instruments in small ensembles, and even when playing solo, has been key to his strength as an innovative guitarist though under documented on his early recordings.

All Things Beautiful (1978) would be Ponder's last full crossover album after which he would begin releasing albums that featured American songbook and jazz standards performed in feels characteristic of 40s and 50s jazz, such as swing, waltz, and bossa nova. Ponder's two Milestone recordings, Down Here On The Ground (1983) and So Many Stars (1983), include famous standards such as Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and Rogers and Hammerstein's "My Funny Valentine" alongside Motown and R&B hits such as Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and "Superstition" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." These sessions capture, more closely, Ponder's live performance where sets are carefully programmed to include a blend of swing, Latin-jazz, soul-jazz, shuffle blues and ballads. Both albums include a vocal piece ("Down Here On The Ground" and "Save Your Love For Me") and open both sides with the more popular R&B and soul hits. Producer Bob Porter went as far as to organize two different bands, one, including pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Scott Lee, and drummer Greg Bandy, to swing and one, including organist Lonnie Smith, electric bassist David Eubanks, and drummer Victor Jones, to play funk. By this point, Ponder had solidified his sound, playing his Gibson Super-400 hollow body jazz guitar with only his thumb. "Lush Life," performed solo on Down Here On The Ground, epitomizes Ponder's thick tone and masterly harmonizing and phasing abilities, which would become hallmarks of his later recordings.


Ponder recorded his last album for Milestone records in 1983, after which we went four years without a release as a leader. In 1987 Ponder signed with Muse, a New York record label, founded in 1972 by former Cobblestone Records head Joe Fields. In the 1970s and 80s, Fields signed artists who had made a name in pre-fusion jazz. Hard Bop musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Woody Shaw, and Houston Person as well as laid-back swingers Kenny Burrell and Kenny Barron were amongst artists in the Muse roster who maintained their stylistic roots throughout their careers. Field's emphasis on small groups, centered on the traditional jazz rhythm section (acoustic piano, double-bass, and drums), built on the tradition of such labels as Blue Note and Verve. However, while these older labels have continued signing younger artists who represent recent trends in jazz, Muse has focused on largely African-American artists of Ponder's generation who continue to play blues and R&B influenced jazz. In 1997, Muse became HighNote, run under Joe Fields son Barney Fields. The younger Fields has continued with the tradition of recording jazz with deep roots in African-American popular music. As one of the few recording guitarists, who developed on the "chitlin circuit" and continue to compose and interpret the music of popular African-American musicians from Stevie Wonder to Duke Ellington, Ponder represents a shrinking genre of contemporary jazz.

Ponder's twelve albums for Muse and HighNote show a consistent approach to improvising, song choice, sidemen and overall album character. Ponder's first album for Muse, Mean Streets-No Bridges, includes a mix of standards, ballads, Latin-jazz, and funky instrumentals. As is characteristic of his following albums, Mean Streets opens with a riff-based shuffle blues ("Next Time You See Me"), which features riff-melodies and blues improvisations that formed the core of his "chitlin circuit" performances. Absent is any need to alter the song form and harmonic language or demonstrate the technical prowess of the bebop era. The musicians are unanimously focused on "just swinging" and creating the right feel. The second track of Mean Streets is a funky cover of the popular Burt Bacharach hit "They Long To Be Close To You," hailing to the crossover days of interpreting chart-toppers. The choice vocal standard "Time After Time" features Ponder singing with the affect of a Gospel or R&B singer, adding an element of seduction to the album. Mean Streets provides a model for Ponder's following albums in that it featured a variety of stylistic influences as well as song choices. This approach hails from the "chitlin circuit" where audiences expected a diverse yet blues-rooted selection of music.

Soul Eyes (1991) also opens with a "down home" blues, giving saxophonist Houston Person, Ponder, and pianist Benny Green each a short solo in which they establish themselves as capable blues players. The album continues with Ponder exploring the harmonically complex jazz ballad "Soul Eyes." Ponder stays close to John Coltrane's well-known arrangement pf the Mal Waldron composition, though he plays the first half of the melody as a solo arrangement, allowing Green to finish the melody and Person improvise over the changes. In contrast to Ponder's rubato solo ending is an aggressive funk version of Miles Davis' famous composition "All Blues." Drummer Victor Jones, a long time sideman with Ponder, exhibits his 1970s funk upbringing, propelling the song as Peter Washington lays down the bass groove. The rest of the album unfolds, setting ballads and swing songs against funk songs. "You Don't Have To Go," the closing song of Soul Eyes, ends in the same vein as it opened; with an acknowledgement of the importance of their urban blues roots.

Ponder's last three albums on HighNote, Thumbs Up (2000), Alone (2000), and What's New (2002), feature him in more exposed musical settings than on his previous albums. For many jazz guitarists, the lack of a pianist or saxophonist hinders their ability to improvise to their greatest ability and creatively experiment. This most often is due to being unaccustomed to filling the missing roles and being dependent on the force of a full band to drive their creative energy. For Ponder, the extra creative space allows him to further utilize his dynamic approach in developing his solos and interacting with his sidemen. Ponder's voice is, beyond his approach to tone and melodic treatment, distinguished by his comprehensive conceptual method wherein he maintains a balance between rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic material, arranging them so to maintain a steady dialogue and progression of improvised ideas.

On Thumbs Up, Ponder uses the traditional guitar trio format (guitar, bass, drums), which continues to comprise many of his live performances. With Pittsburgh bassist Dave Pellow and drummer-producer Cecil Brooks III, Ponder presents a selection of jazz standards performed in swing and bossa nova styles. With exception of the last track, "Funk Wit Dis," Thumbs Up is what could be considered a traditional "straight ahead" album, demonstrating Ponder's fluency in jazz styles of the 1940s and 50s. In similar convention, Alone and What's New move away from R&B and urban blues to traditional swing. For Ponder, whose early playing experiences were in R&B and soul jazz groups, this tendency towards the "traditional" marks an amalgamation of musical experiences rather than a return to his "roots." On Alone, amongst the few commercially released solo jazz guitar albums following innovative solo recordings of Joe Pass, Ponder takes on difficult jazz standards, such as "Lullaby Of Birdland" and "Stompin' At The Savoy," stringing together block chord harmonized melodies while maintaining the strong swing feel. What's New presents Ponder in the organ trio (Hammond organ, guitar, drums) format where he is free to exploit his melodic approach on his choice standards.

After Ponder returned to Pittsburgh from Newark in the late 1980s, he did not regularly perform with New York sidemen. Besides short tours as a sideman or recording, the bulk of Ponder's performances from 1990 to 2006 were with local artists at local clubs. Ponder regularly appeared both as a solo act as well as leading a quartet at Craig Poole's jazz club James Steet Located in Pittsburgh's North side, James Steet maintained a regular performance schedule of local and east coast jazz and R&B bands until its close in 2005. The two intimately cramped and low-lit floors provided an ideal environment for Ponder to perform. With Pittsburgh musicians such as Mike Taylor (b), Dave Pellow (b), Dwayne Dolphin (b), Tony DePaolis (b), George Heid (d), Roger Humphries (d), Tom Wendt (d), Jevon Rushton (d), Howie Alexander (p), and Gene Ludwig (org), Ponder continues performing with fiery energy. Ponder's recent albums occasionally feature a Pittsburgh associate such as Something To Ponder (1994) with Roger Humphries and James Street (1997) with Dwayne Dolphin, though most are New York based artists associated with HighNote. The result has been albums that capture Ponder's approach to interpreting jazz, blues, and R&B standards yet largely fail to communicate the energy and dynamics of his live performance.


Recordings exist in part to replace the experience of live performance though they convey a different experience to the listener. While recording in a studio environment creates an impression of public performance, it is something quite different, born from different creative processes. Because the listener consumes and evaluate the recording itself, not the processes of recording, the musician must take a product-oriented approach. In a live performance, the creative process, as experienced by performer and participant, becomes a central element in the musical experience.

Jazz musicians often note that they approach performance in a recording studio with more restraint in order to capture an impression of the stage performance and to avoid mistakes. Drummer Greg Bandy, a long time sideman for Ponder, notes "In recording you got to think short and to the point where in the club...you can really experiment and get loose." Implied in this statement is the necessity for an alternate playing style for recording that emphasizes understatement over emotional freedom. Part of the creative energy of the live performance is the close proximity of the musicians, which aids their ability to communicate musically, visually, and orally. Separation in a recording studio removes the physical experience of creating music, replacing it with a purely aural one. Bandy notes that live performance generally provides an improved medium for creative musical expression because "one thing about being close on the bandstand, you feel the other musicians." In contrast, musicians in a studio environment are conscious of the fact that the performance will become a lasting statement of their abilities and so are less likely to experiment with new ideas. What may feel and sound like an inspired moment in a live environment may appear faulty out of context.

Because of this, the concept of the "mistake" functions differently in recording sessions as it does in live performance. In a club, a mistake in the right creative context is a sign of "pushing oneself" or reaching beyond one's abilities. This serves to heighten the experience of the musicians and audience by adding an element of risk to the performance. As Bandy notes, when the musicians are creatively engaged with one another in a live performance "even mistakes sound good." "Mistakes," on a recording, are more likely to be perceived as a flaw in the musicians' abilities than a part of the creative process. Because the musical experience has been reduced from a visual, physical, aural, and social phenomenon to a purely sonic form, the listener becomes "note focused," unable to evaluate or interact the musician's presence.

Ponder often speaks of the importance for continually reaching beyond one's means in a performance, whether in trying to instantaneously conceive a complex rhythmic phrase or rearrange a song on the bandstand. This approach pushes him to continue developing as a creative artist and maintains a high level of awareness, interaction, and respect amongst his sidemen. In live performances, Ponder develops devices that make the music exciting and surprising. When ending a piece Ponder may "tag" the last four measures so to create a new cycle over which to improvise. After building the "tag" to a climax he will begin playing a short rhythmic phrase in which he will give the slightest flick of his hand signaling an immediate cut- off, despite his place in the cycle. If a musician should miss this signal or not break with the right conviction, Ponder will demand that they perform the "tag" again so that they can end the song to his satisfaction. This theatric display could never be rehearsed with convincing results, nor would Ponder strive to do so. His goal in live performance is to balance surprise with anticipation not only for his audience, but for himself and his musicians as well. Rarely is this element of performance captured in Ponder's recordings. A good example is To Reach A Dream where Ponder and organist Lonnie Smith conceptually experiment with no pre-determined arrangements. On the title track, Ponder takes a short initial solo following the melody. Smith enters slowly after Ponder's abrupt solo, singing over his chords as he builds to a massive apex of screaming organ chords. After a quick restatement of the first part of the melody, Smith begins a chord vamp subverting Ponder's attempt to state the melody bridge. Settling into the new harmonic framework that Smith sets up, Ponder launches into an aggressive solo followed by a rhythmic vamp that ends the piece. While the recording has moments of uncertainty, the musicians' abilities to adapt to one another's whims capture a piece of the freedom that is experienced in the informal environment of the "chitlin circuit," where nothing less would be accepted by audiences.

Ponder's creative voice does not live solely in his recorded output. As creative processes differ from the stage to the studio, so do the end products. Live performances exist in the memories of the participants, both performers and audience members, while recordings exist in a concrete form that is consumed by individuals removed from the creative process. To understand Ponder's voice, or that of any improvising musician, requires an examination of the creative processes involved in both live and studio performances. Ponder draws as much from formative life experiences as he does from harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic norms in improvising. When improvisations are examined outside of their social context, they become theoretical ideas independent of the ideals from which they were created. I have, in this study, aimed to approach those creative processes that have enabled Ponder to develop a musical identity. While Ponder succeeds as a creative individual worthy of the status of innovator, those formative processes involved in creating his voice apply across the phenomenon of modern African-American popular music. What remains intriguing is the creative success of the individual in the midst of this uniformity.

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