I first met Jimmy when he was teaching at a jazz camp for high school students in Pittsburgh. I was 15, recently turned on to Wes Montgomery, and trying to make sense of the music. Ponder was the first guitarist I had heard in person who embodied the music. He poured himself through the instrument. The sound of his thumb on the Gibson Super 400 was rich, warm, lyrical, and immediate. It was as if he had a quartet in the palm of his hand.
I made sure to catch his sets around Pittsburgh where he worked regularly with bassists Mike Taylor, Dave Pellow, Dwayne Dolphin, Jeff Grubs, and Tony Depaolis, drummers Roger Humphries, Tom Wendt, and Alex Peck, and pianist Howie Alexander among many others. I remember his sets with Mike Taylor at the Church Brew Works. The duo, tucked into an apse of the converted church, would link up on a telepathic level. A grin would grow across Mike's face and Ponder would explode into laughter as they delved into Misty," transforming the song into something neither had heard before.
It was years later that we began to sit down together to talk and play music. I would go up to his apartment in the hills above Pittsburgh's Northside and we would go over solo guitar techniques. He always put emotion at the forefront, What is your purpose!" He listened very closely to what I had to say and play never shying from criticism or praise. After the lesson, he would cook and we'd listen to Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Lou Donaldson, and many other artists over a beer. Music is more than a structure to be learned, it is something you have to consume.
Jimmy was not protective of the stage or his guitar. Music was always something to be shared, not hoarded away for a few sets. Sitting in on a set was always a transformative experience. Jimmy's Super 400 had absorbed his energy over the decades and listened just as intently as he did. I always felt that my honesty was being tested. Was I really cutting out the bullshit and saying something? Last March we finally arranged to play a gig together. Ponder had cut his finger the day before and the bandage made playing impossible. He laughed off my attempts at putting a silicone wrap on the deep cut and ended up playing the evening with no bandage. It was a great honor sharing the stage with Jimmy and we made plans to do it again. Unfortunately, he fell sick not long after.
Ponder was both a sun and a storm. He carried a great weight on his shoulders from past regrets but also stood defiantly with a smile on his face. It came out in his music where deadly seriousness, jest, and joy met. He lived to express and lift the pain of others using his gift from God. We will miss his laughter, his stories, and his song.
Jimmy singing Our Day Will Come," Alone (2003)