Obituary: Jimmy Ponder / One of Pittsburgh's great jazz musicians

May 10, 1946 - Sept. 16, 2013

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You needed to hear Jimmy Ponder only once to hear his mastery of the guitar -- his style demanded that you take notice, and many people did.

Mr. Ponder, who had been fighting cancer, died Monday. He was 67.

To say he was another in the long line of Pittsburgh's all-time great jazz musicians would be an understatement, according to drummer George Heid of Aspinwall. Mr. Heid considered Mr. Ponder on the level of Charlie Christian, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green when it came to playing jazz guitar.

They "changed the game. It was never the same after what they did," Mr. Heid said. "Jimmy wasn't playing anyone's licks. I considered it the greatest privilege to work with him for the last 15 years."

Mr. Ponder, a Pittsburgh native who lived at times in Philadelphia and New York before returning home, began playing guitar at 11 and was invited to go on the road with organist Charles Earland while still in high school. According to Mr. Heid, Mr. Ponder's mother, Grace, insisted that he finish school first, which he did.

During his career, Mr. Ponder also worked with, among others, Lou Donaldson, Houston Person, Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine and Jimmy McGriff. He recorded more than 100 albums, 20 of those as a leader.

Bassist Dwayne Dolphin, who recorded three of those albums with Mr. Ponder, noted, "I've never seen an artist present his artistry so unfiltered. When you heard Jimmy Ponder, you got whatever was in his heart and soul at the moment."

Mr. Heid, however, also noted the deep spiritual connection Mr. Ponder had with his music.

Some years ago Mr. Ponder and Mr. Heid, together with bassist Mike Taylor, were playing what Mr. Heid referred to as a "fern bar" in Cranberry. They noticed that patrons were watching studio wrestling on TV. But Mr. Ponder told Mr. Heid not to be concerned.

"God gave us this gift of music," Mr. Heid recalled Mr. Ponder telling him. "If we play with 100 percent heart, soul and our best ability and we reach one person for one moment, we've honored that gift and done our job."

"That defined Jimmy," Mr. Heid said. "He would go to every single gig with that purpose."

Mr. Heid also recalled what happened when they played the James Street Restaurant on the North Side.

"People were eating and turning around in their chairs" to listen to him, Mr. Heid said. "Those people would [then] stick around and have dessert or coffee. It was a room with total attention -- he'd rise to the occasion at every gig."

"There'll never be another Jimmy Ponder," Mr. Dolphin said. "Stylistically, he was unique -- he wasn't afraid to take great leaps of faith harmonically. He loved life, loved his music, a great friend."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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Rick Nowlin: or 412-263-3871.


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