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.
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.