In life and on stage with his Gibson Super 400 guitar, Jimmy Ponder was a force of nature because he blew people away. From the Hill District, to Manhattan, to Atlanta and beyond, he epitomized the Pittsburgh jazz guitar legacy.
He died Sept. 16 after battling cancer for more than a year. He was 67.
“Man, it’s a major loss. He was a phenomenal musician, a solid composers, a great singer, and just a really great guy,” said longtime friend and occasional collaborator Nelson Harrison.
“He played a week with us at the Crawford Grill in 1966, he was “Fats” Ponder then. To this day, people still talk about that gig. He will be dearly missed.”
Ponder, self-taught from the age of 11, left Pittsburgh with the Charles Earland Trio just seven years later, and as he said “never looked back.”
Living in New York City and Philadelphia, he toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy McGriff, and fellow Pittsburgher Stanley Turrentine, to name just a few. He returned home to Pittsburgh in 1990.
Harrison said he saw Ponder just two weeks ago and that he was talking about beating his illness.
“He said he was in remission, and he still had that strong, strong handshake,” said Harrison. “It reminded me of riding through Manhattan on the Basie band bus and seeing Jimmy’s name in lights two-feet tall at some club and thinking all right, Jimmy has conquered New York.”
Despite his talent, and the respect in which other musicians held him, Ponder never became wealthy or particularly famous. But that didn’t bother him.
“If I die in poverty,” he once said. “I’ve had the best life can offer which is love, admiration and respect of my public and friends. You can’t ask for that. You can’t buy that.”
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