Ponty was born in a family of classical musicians on September 29, 1942 in Avranches, France. His father taught violin, his mother taught piano. At sixteen, he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, graduating two years later with the institution's highest award, Premier Prix. In turn, he was immediately hired by one of the major symphony orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, where he played for three years.
While still a member of the orchestra in Paris, Ponty picked up a side gig playing clarinet (which his father had taught him) for a college jazz band that regularly performed at local parties. It proved a life-changing jumping-off point. A growing interest in the jazz sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane compelled him to take up the tenor saxophone. Fueled by an all-encompassing creative passion, Jean-Luc soon felt the need to express his jazz voice through his main instrument, the violin.
So it was that Ponty found himself leading a dual musical life: rehearsing and performing with the orchestra while also playing jazz until 3 AM at clubs throughout Paris. The demands of this doomed schedule eventually brought him to a crossroads. "Naturally, I had to make a choice, so I took a chance with jazz", says Jean-Luc.
At first, the violin proved to be a handicap; few at the time viewed the instrument as having a legitimate place in the modern jazz vocabulary. With a powerful sound that eschewed vibrato, Jean-Luc distinguished himself with be-bop era phrasings and a punchy style influenced more by horn players than by anything previously tried on the violin; nobody had heard anything quite like it before. Critics said then that he was the first jazz violinist to be as exciting as a saxophonist. Ponty's notoriety grew with remarkable leaps and by 1964, at age 22, he released his debut solo album for Philips, Jazz Long Playing. A 1966 live album called Violin Summit united Ponty on stage in Basel, Switzerland with such notable string talents as Svend Asmussen, Stéphane Grappelli and Stuff Smith.
In 1967, John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet invited Ponty to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Jean-Luc's first-ever American appearance garnered thunderous applause and led to a U.S. recording contract with the World Pacific label (Electric Connection with the Gerald Wilson Big Band, Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the George Duke Trio). Through the late-60s and early-70s, Ponty achieved mounting critical praise and popularity across Europe. In turn, the violinist soon found his signature talents in demand by top recording artists the world over.
In 1969, Frank Zappa composed the music for Jean-Luc's solo album King Kong. In 1972, Elton John invited Ponty to contribute to his Honky Chateau #1 hit album . Within a year - at the urging of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention who wanted him to join their tour - Ponty emigrated with his wife and two young daughters to America and made his home in Los Angeles. He continued to work on a variety of projects - including a pair of John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra albums/tours (Apocalypse, Visions of the Emerald Beyond) until 1975, when he signed on as a solo artist with Atlantic Records.
This first major recording contract gave Ponty total artistic freedom. For the next decade, Jean-Luc toured the world repeatedly and recorded 12 consecutive albums which all reached the top 5 on the Billboard jazz charts and sold millions of copies. Early Atlantic recordings, such as 1976's Aurora and Imaginary Voyage, firmly established him as a figurehead in America's growing jazz-rock movement. He went on to crack the top 40 in 1977 with the Enigmatic Ocean album and again in 1978 with Cosmic Messenger. In 1984, a revolutionary video featuring time lapse images was produced by Louis Schwarzberg for Individual Choice. Along with Herbie Hancock, Ponty became one of the first jazz musicians to have a music video.
Besides recording and touring with his own group, Ponty also performed some of his compositions with the New Music Ensemble of Pittsburgh, the Radio City Orchestra in New York, as well as with symphony orchestras in Montreal, Toronto, Oklahoma City and Tokyo. In the late-80s, he recorded a pair of albums, The Gift of Time and Storytelling for Columbia.
On 1991's Epic-released Tchokola, Ponty combined his acoustic and electric violins, for the first time, with the powerful polyrhythmic sounds of West Africa. He also performed for two months in the U.S. and Canada with a cast of African expatriates he had encountered on the Paris music scene. In 1993, Ponty returned to Atlantic in impressive fashion with No Absolute Time. Working with American and African musicians, Jean-Luc expanded on the explorations of Tchokola with a moving and soulful result. "There is a whole scene in Paris of top-notch African musicians", he says. "I was very curious and wanted to educate myself in these rhythms, which were totally new to my ears.
In 1995, Ponty joined guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke to record an acoustic album under the name The Rite of Strings. This all-star trio also undertook a six-month tour of North America, South America, and Europe that earned them intercontinental critical praise.
Ponty regrouped his American band in 1996 for live performances following the release of a double CD anthology of Ponty's productions for Atlantic Records entitled Le Voyage. One of these concerts was recorded in Detroit, Michigan, in front of 6000 fans. It was released in February 1997 by Atlantic Records under the title Live at Chene Park.
In 1997, Jean-Luc Ponty put back together his group of Western and African musicians pursuing this new fusion that he started in 1991. Together they toured for 3 years from the Hawaiian Islands to Poland and triumphed in North America as well as in Europe. Ponty also performed a highly acclaimed duet with bassist Miroslav Vitous in December 99. In January 2000, he participated to Lalo Schifrin's most recent recording with a big band, Esperanto, a universal approach to music which has always been the essence of Ponty's motivation and work.
Jean-Luc Ponty will soon release a new solo studio recording. He will also continue to perform with his multicultural group of musicians through the year 2000 and beyond.