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Jimmy Ponder: His Recorded Output

Colter Harper By

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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.

EARLY RECORDINGS AS A LEADER

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.

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