Reviving a Detroit jazz legacy: Terry Jean Pollard was queen of the vibes

Aug 3, 2016 at 1:00 am
Reviving a Detroit jazz legacy: Terry Jean Pollard was queen of the vibes
erry Jean Pollard at 18. | Photo courtesy of Terry Jean Pollard Music Foundation

At a recent James Tatum Foundation for the Arts benefit concert, special tributes were made to Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and jazz pianist and vibraphonist Terry Jean Pollard. The foundation presented the Distinguished Jazz Award in Pollard’s name at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. For those who knew her, seeing Pollard’s name next to those of famous civil rights icons is not a surprise.

Yet, for numerous reasons, the late musician's name has never made it near the same status. This is why her son, Dennis Michael Weeden, and longtime family friend Daniel Hosper started the Terry Jean Pollard Music Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to individual development of female students by giving them opportunities to further their musical ambitions. The foundation's programs will provide instruments and educational materials to inspire students and the community with the legacy of the late, great "Queen of the Vibes."

"When I became my mother's caretaker, I was spending more time with her every day," Weeden says. "She would tell stories about playing and being on the road, and I realized there were other things that she would have liked to have done but couldn't once she became ill. She wanted to be a nurse because she loved helping people."

The goal of the foundation is to make sure Pollard gets the chapter she deserves in African-American history, and also to educate others in jazz musicianship, Weeden says.

Since establishing the foundation, Weeden and Hosper have reconnected with people from Pollard's past. "We are at a point of reaching out to the community in Detroit to rebuild the music identity of jazz in young females," Weeden says.

"We want young girls to see that other women have been there for a long time, and they're building on that. There are more females in jazz now than ever, and since starting this foundation, the thing I hear the most from people who knew her or saw her play is that my mother played better than anyone else does today. They say she's still the best. I want people to walk away saying, 'Wow I didn't know that, that's interesting' and have new role models to inspire young artists."

This may seem like a lofty claim, and an especially biased one, coming from Pollard's own son. But a few quick stories from Pollard's life might help fill in some gaps. "My dad frequented all the jazz clubs and he would take me to see Terry's matinees growing up," Hosper says. "Terry would drop off Dennis when she would gig, but I got to see a lot of her performances." Hosper recalls a particularly memorable performance. "One summer day, my parents dressed us in our Sunday best and said we were going to see Terry play at the State Fair," he says.

"We were sitting in the main pavilion, which seemed weird and out of context compared to the small clubs Terry normally played in. I saw Terry and her band walk onto the stage and take their places, and then the lights got super bright, and the Supremes came out and began to sing. After the show, we went backstage and Terry introduced us to all three Supremes. They seemed giant, like walking monuments to me. I was beyond words."

However, Hosper was confused why the best musician, in his mind, was playing as the backing band. "I asked my dad, 'How come Terry is playing for them?' and he explained how everyone requests Terry to play with them because she can swing harder and also has the finesse to phrase her piano-playing with a singer better than anyone else around."

Terry Jean Pollard was sought after by none other than John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dizzy Gillespie.

She was born in Detroit on Aug. 15, 1931. She grew up in the jazz-infused Conant Gardens neighborhood, and first began plucking away on the piano at the age of 3. When her abilities surpassed the challenges of her piano lessons, she would use the money for her lessons to buy ice cream for her friends.

By 14, Pollard was sneaking out of the house at night to play in jazz clubs. And by 16, she'd developed the skills and reputation to play professionally. She thrived during the late 1940s and '50s, performing with up-and-coming local musicians, as well as even bigger names when they came to town. In addition to the giants already name-dropped, Pollard played with Johnny Hill, Yusef Lateef, Emmitt Slay, Billy Mitchell, Dick Garcia, Terry Gibbs, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, and Duke Ellington.

Pollard first considered a professional career in music when she first was paid to perform. At the commencement ceremony for her nursing school graduation in 1948, the keyboard player for the band didn't show up. Everyone knew of Pollard's reputation, so the band asked her to play with them, and she blew everyone away. She made $15 for the one gig, and realized she could make good money playing jazz, so she decided to take it more seriously. She got a day job working at Hudson's department store, and started playing regularly at local clubs, specifically Baker's Keyboard Lounge, a popular spot for locals like Art Tatum and Gerry Mulligan.

During this period, Pollard recorded with Billy Mitchell, and began collaborating with other local musicians Johnny Hill and the Emmitt Slay Trio. In 1952, she was discovered by vibraphonist Terry Gibbs while playing at Beehive Bar. Gibbs was so mesmerized by Pollard's raw talent that he asked her to join his band on their North American tour. She joined the Terry Gibbs Quartet, on piano and second vibes. They toured for eight years, from 1952-1960, and recorded five albums together. While touring with Gibbs, Pollard was offered a solo recording contract with Bethlehem Records and recorded a self-titled album, released in 1955. Labeled as the Terry Pollard Quintet, it would be her only solo LP.

On Oct. 12, 1956, Pollard made history as one of the first black female jazz artists to appear on NBC's Tonight Starring Steve Allen, the early incarnation of The Tonight Show, when she and Gibbs played "Gibberish" and a rendition of "Now's the Time." They playfully battled each other on the same vibraphone (search YouTube to see it yourself). That same year, Pollard was awarded the prestigious DownBeat magazine New Artist award, and nicknamed "Queen of the vibes."

In 1960, Pollard quit the road — just as she was peaking on a national level — to stay in Detroit, and focus on being a mother. However, as Hosper explains: "The downfall of her career was being mistreated on the road: racial slurs, disrespectful medical treatment, not being able to sit with the audience after performing. The climate of racial adversity during her time really robbed her of a national career."

Pollard was simultaneously so highly recognized and so extremely disrespected that she decided it was not worth sacrificing her time and family.

"What if she hadn't done that?" Weeden asks. "She would be what most artists are today, who are too hungry for success. They give up their kids and family. I realize how much she sacrificed for me, so I'm on a mission for her now because she gave so much for me. We're doing this foundation to show jazz isn't a joke; we really want to help these kids."

Pollard continued to play locally in Detroit with the Terry Pollard Trio. "And every jazz great would request them to be in their rhythm section," Weeden says. "She also worked at Hudson's, had a day job. She worked during the day and would gig at night, and also raised her daughter Corby. My mother was a very strong and independent person; her playing shows that. She was also very Christian, and had nothing but a strong faith through all of her experiences."

Pollard was an active player throughout metro Detroit until 1978, when she simultaneously had an aneurysm and a stroke. This left her entire left side paralyzed, preventing her from performing again. In 1979, a tribute concert hosted by Steve Allen was held in her honor. After recovering and laying low in Detroit, Pollard moved to New York in 2000 to live closer to her son. She resided in a nursing home, where she entertained the other residents by playing the piano for them most days.

"Until her last days, she practiced every day with one hand, and was still better than most with two," Weeden says. "She never cursed or got mad about her condition. She never pitied herself. I could always come to her with my problems, but she would never let me pity myself." Pollard continued to play for friends and family whenever they visited, until her death on Dec. 16, 2009.

For both Hosper and Weeden, Pollard's character is just as inspiring as her musical abilities. "Terry showed me a level of unstoppable strength, courage, and faith that continues in my heart to this day," Hosper says. "I gotta believe she's rejoicing in heaven about what Dennis Michael, and I are trying to do. My parents and Terry loved this city, and we're blessed to have known her and to be able to use her legacy to continue to improve our community."

This is exactly the type of dedication and strong personality the two want to spread through their program, through Pollard's legacy. "We're getting the street she grew up on named after her, and that's sort of our starting point, but we're reaching out to more schools to show our program," Weeden says. "If you get the kids interested in jazz, the playing, and the history, it grows from the bottom up."

Through a program of DVDs and virtual classrooms, the music lessons will focus on the art of percussive instruments and are designed with the goal of making music and history fun to learn, beginning with students as young as kindergarteners.

Weeden is especially excited about reaching kids as soon as possible.

"As soon as we can get the kids started in the footprints lessons and they grow with the program, they will gain knowledge and experience," he says. "This is a musical journey for us as well as the students." The pre-K and kindergarten program provides a roadmap for strategic learning, grounded in the national learning standards in the arts.

The program has a larger goal than just teaching kids about jazz — it's really about creating opportunities for young women who might never consider the music business. "The Footprint is a result of collaboration between educators and representatives from the music and arts cultural communities," Weeden says. "Our goals are to educate young artists so that they can take advantage of various career opportunities available in the music industry. The future needs more trained female musicians, arrangers, composers, songwriters, engineers, and producers."

All of these plans rest on the hopes of raising enough money at the foundation's first fundraising event, which will take place in Detroit later this winter, titled A Terry Pollard Affair. The rest of the details have yet to be finalized, but will be announced soon on their website,

"I'm living with this daily. And it's weird in a way, like she's still alive," Weeden softly says at the end of our long conversation. "I don't know how to explain it."

If the foundation achieves their goals, they won't have to explain Pollard's legacy to anyone anymore.