Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jimmy Ponder, In Depth

In the interest of bringing jazz guitarist Jimmy Ponder out of the "out of the background to the foreground of our minds," as I recently said I hope to do, I am happy to bring to your attention a detailed analysis and stimulating discussion of Ponder's career and music entitled, "Jimmy Ponder: A Case Study of Creative Processes and Identity Formation in American Popular Music."  It is the Master's Thesis of Pittsburgh-based guitarist Colter Harper, and the University of Pittsburgh has made it available online. 

In his introduction, Harper says that as
"a student and friend of Jimmy Ponder’s, I have been struck by the conviction of his musical values and their relationship to all aspects of his life. I am deeply indebted to Ponder for sharing his artistic vision with such vehement dedication and will carry his lessons in all of my artistic endeavors. This study is my offering of appreciation for his teachings and lifelong dedication to the art of music."

(In my previous post on Ponder, I opined that Pittsburgh "needs its counterpart to Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, 1920-1960.  Well, Harper, who is currently working toward his doctorate at Duquesne University, has chosen for his dissertation topic "Jazz in Pittsburgh, 1948-1968."  Something to look forward to.)

Although I needed nothing more than the title to be drawn to Harper's monograph, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more it contained than the usual thesis ingredients (biosketch, discography, bibliography, quotation, etc.)  Among the many topics he explores are: "Soul and Hammond Organ Jazz," "Race and Ideology," "The Chitlin' Circuit," "Authenticity and the Creation of 'Voice' in Jazz," "The Aesthetics of Soul Jazz," and "Ponder as a Band Leader."  Harper weaves the content of interviews with Ponder and his colleagues into an historical narrative supported by solid reading, and renders his synthesis with journalistic concision.  His brief forays into social theory do not derail but rather enrich his narrative. 

(One quibble: I find "meaningful" meaningless, but it seems to be Harper's his one verbal crutch.  He never defines it, but uses it seventeen times.  It is out of place in a scholarly effort in which he otherwise made the meaning of all his distinctive assertions clear.)

Harper's insights into jazz's social dynamics have forced me to think differently, and harder, about what I have to work on to further my own musical growth.  In themselves, one's practice materials, no matter how diligently attended to, can shed no light on the experience of "locking in" with one's fellow musicians or on communicating with the audience. 

Other writers have noted the difference between playing before an audience and recording in a studio, but Harper illuminated it for me in a few sentences:
"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. . . . " 
"[M]usicians 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."
Don't be put off by the words "master's thesis."  Minus the scholarly paraphernalia, the text takes up about 90 pages of double-spaced typescript.  Think of it as a long magazine article about something you love.  Then tell others about it.  Jimmy Ponder will be in the foreground of our musical minds in no time.

Now sit back and dig Jimmy's tone and groove on "Jennifer" from his 1976 release for ABC Impulse, Illusions.