“I was speechless. I had to put the phone down because I was out of breath,” recalled Jacob Estrada, who played in a conjunto band with Ponce and appeared on a CD recorded just a few years ago. “I cried out for a minute. It was hard for the first two days for me. It was very hard.”
Ponce toured with Grammy Award-winning musicians Ry Cooder and Flaco Jiménez in the late 1970s as a bajo sexto (12-string guitar) player, including concerts across Europe, at the Grand Ole Opry, and a TV performance on Saturday Night Live. They also recorded a live album together. Ponce first played with Jiménez and his conjunto band in the mid-1960s.
Born in San Antonio in 1943, Ponce grew up in the heart of conjunto music, a traditional accordion-led style of Tejano (Tex-Mex) music. He first performed with Conjunto Ponce, a family band led by his father Encarnación Ponce, a violinist and accordion player born in Monterrey, México. Ponce began playing the bajo sexto at age seven. Along with the accordion and bajo sexto guitar, conjunto bands usually included drums, bass guitar, and keyboard.
Ponce was the fourth of six sons, and one of 10 children who grew up in a three-room home in San Antonio. The sons slept on the floor of one room, while his sisters slept in another. As a youth, his Spanish-speaking parents traveled Texas picking cotton.
The Ponce family later moved to San Antonio so the children could attend school. His mother was a homemaker known for her beautiful singing voice. His father worked as a handyman and played violin, guitar, accordion, and stand-up bass in the family’s band.
Ponce’s three older brothers performed with their father in Conjunto Ponce and he didn’t want to be left out. At the age of five, he climbed onto a chair and learned to play the upright bass. The band performed at dance halls and house parties, playing waltzes, polkas, and rancheras—all the earnings going toward family expenses.
Ponce later played bajo sexto, electric bass, and upright bass guitars in Tex-Mex, rock, and bluegrass bands. He married and had four children, and toured, but the life of a musician took its toll on family life. Ponce moved to Toledo in 1979 to rekindle a romance with an old girlfriend—and stayed in town for over two decades, becoming a vital part of Northwest Ohio’s Tejano music scene.
Ponce took up the three-row button accordion in the early 1980s, because there were so few people locally who played the instrument skillfully. He borrowed an accordion from a friend and, just a few weeks later, first performed with other musicians at a wedding. He practiced 12 to 16 hours a day to learn “the squeezebox” so quickly.
For many years, he worked as a plumber by day and as a musician at night. “He was definitely a mentor, a teacher, and a father to me,” said Estrada. “To this day, people would ask me how my dad was doing, because they thought we were father and son. We hung out a lot together.”
“He genuinely cared. There was a bond between us. I have never had a bond with someone in my life like that except for my grandfather,” said Estrada. “He felt the same way about his son Bruce. He cared about his son and his grandson.”
In 2005, Ponce released a 17-song, conjunto-style CD, “Playing From The Heart—y Para Siempre,” which included the songs Tres Marranitos and El Burro Pardo. The CD was a joint project among Ponce, the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center (SQACC), and Bowling Green State University. The center even hosted a CD release party on his behalf. The CD was a hit on San Antonio radio station KEDA, Radio Jalapeño.
Ponce was also the subject of a 28-minute video produced by WBGU-TV (Channel 27) in Bowling Green that same year. Ponce received a Heritage Award from the Ohio Arts Council for sharing his cultural gifts.
Estrada remembers that there were two sides to his musical mentor: “a serious side” and “a happy side.” But he stated that Ponce definitely set the tone and atmosphere on stage. “I won’t say he was a perfectionist, but precision was definitely important to him,” Estrada said. “But there were also times when he was happy and carefree on stage.”
Ponce toured that year in support of the CD, including performances at a Columbus coffeehouse that was recorded for cable TV and a concert at the Cityfolk Festival in Dayton, a three-day multi-cultural celebration featuring the best in traditional and ethnic music, dance and arts from across the U.S.
“What I remember the most about Jesse is he was a jokester,” said Estrada, who now heads his own band Los Mariachis Locos. “There were times I didn’t know whether he was joking or serious, because he joked around so much.”
Ponce played occasionally in recent years with Baldemar Velásquez, president and co-founder of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in the Aguila Negra Band. Ponce later recorded a second album of labor and folk songs with Velásquez.
Ponce also performed with his son Bruce Lee Ponce, Jacob Estrada, and Frank Ibarra in Sal y Pimienta for 12 years and as the “house musician” at SQACC.
In addition to his performing activities, Ponce was always an active and central part of the Latino community, mentoring young musicians, working with FLOC, and participating in countless benefit concerts at churches, in jails, and for FLOC events.
Ponce could still be found playing his bajo sexto occasionally with Fremont, Ohio’s Amanda Reyna y los Reyes Ritmo, but was more frequently found playing his beloved rancheras and polkas on his squeezebox.
According to the M. E. Rodríguez Funeral Home in San Antonio, Jesse was born on June 12, 1943 and he is survived by his wife Anita Ponce; his children Jesse Ponce Jr., Mark Ponce, Lisa Medellin, Sonia Rodríguez, Jesús Ponce, Jacob Rios, Bruce Ponce, Eddie Dias, Lucy Dias, and Amor Dias; siblings Encarnación Jr., José, Ernesto, Juliana, Irene, and Dolores; 34 grandchildren and 25 great grandchildren.
In the 2005 La Prensa photo, Jesse is being helped by Jacob Estrada at the Quintero Center.