Ponty was born into a family of classical musicians on 29 September 1942 in Avranches, France. His father taught violin, his mother taughtpiano. 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. One night after an orchestra concert, still wearing his formal tuxedo, Ponty found himself at a local club with only his violin. Within four years, he was widely accepted as the leading figure in jazz fiddle.