The fact that Phil Pollard was mortal might have seemed impossible, a week ago: Few people ever seemed quite so spontaneously, joyfully, arrogantly, irrevocably alive as Phil. Compared to him, most of the rest of us looked frail, sallow, tentative. If you saw him in a room with any of us, Phil would be the one you wouldn't worry about. He was the most thoroughly alive guy in every room.
Musicians sometimes seem to exist outside of age. I didn't know how old Phil was, and it never occurred to me to inquire until he died. Last week, even fellow performers who knew Phil much better than I do could hardly guess. Around 30? 50? No number ever seemed to fit him very well. For the record, he collapsed of a violent stroke at the Waldorf School in Richmond where he and his wife, Dawn, both taught elementary-level kids, on his 44th birthday.
"It's hard to believe a soul that big is no longer among us," said poet-performer Jack Rentfro at the Blue Plate Special on Monday.
He was a remarkable fellow, a scholar of literature and American history, a family man with a wife and three daughters, and, his most public persona, musician—but more than that, a phenomenon difficult to compare to anything else in Knoxville's diverse musical history. Eight or nine years ago, hardly anybody in Knoxville music circles had ever heard of him; a former pro-football marching-band member from Maryland, he taught English at Roane State's Oak Ridge campus. Some of the few who'd met him didn't even know he was a performer.
He began as a dependable drummer for Sara Schwabe's Yankee Jass Band, alongside keyboardist Geol Greenlee. Playing American Songbook standards at restaurants and nightclubs, they may have been the first band to play at Preservation Pub. He later did the same favor for very different bands, the LoneTones and the Bearded. Sometime in the middle of the decade he launched himself into the role of the manic, intuitive white-hot center of maybe the largest band that has enjoyed a nightclub following in Knoxville since the Big Band era, and the most startling. The Band of Humans, a conspiracy of musically talented surrealists, usually about nine, but sometimes a dozen or more onstage at once. Some were well-known musicians on their own, even leaders of other bands, somehow privileged to be sideman for this pudgy community-college instructor who liked to dress up as Abraham Lincoln or, sometimes, a Moroccan rug merchant in shorts. Who played vibraphone, wielding his fuzzy mallets deftly as if the instrument was every bit as cool as a Stratocaster and, for that moment, of course, it was.
In Phil's alternate reality, everything and everybody was refracted. Dave Nichols, one of Knoxville's best-known jazz and rock guitarists and bassists, played trombone. Matt Morelock, known for his expertise on the banjo, played congas. Band of Humans shows featured some mandolin, English horn, kettle drums, flute, ukulele, clarinet, didgeridu. And nearly every show featured Phil's personal concerto for toy flexitone.
The music they played, if you could even give it a name, was jazz, funk, samba, following Phil's sharp turns. He performed a few recognizable songs of his own, and they became crowd favorites. His sets were never one love song after another; in fact, his closest approximation of a love song was his personal Ode to Joy: "Like Eating Chocolate Cake!"
He was both funnier than most performers and somehow, in a way that didn't seem contradictory within his big soul, more serious. The band became lushly, profoundly meditative when he read the Gettysburg Address, or from Lincoln's letters, as the one offering the gravest of condolences to Mrs. Bixby, who had lost multiple sons in the war; or bits of William Blake or Sylvia Plath. Pollard's seriousness of purpose could strike a drunken bar crowd almost mercilessly, when they were most vulnerable. He told me once, and I think he was sincere, that he wanted to impress people with the importance of this stuff. He was fascinated with Cormac McCarthy, and found, in his novel, Suttree, meditations on death which fit the meter of what is to me his most beautiful song: "‘Shit,' one said," it goes, in a perhaps unintentional couplet quoted from the book's end. "‘Old Suttree ain't dead.'" Only Phil could have made it an unforgettable chorus. He played that for a Cormac McCarthy Conference pub crawl a few years ago.
And the Humans went places, even made the cut to play at Bonnaroo a couple of years ago. At the First Night celebration of 2009-10, Pollard's Humans took center stage on Market Square as the evening's headliner, and held a crowd of thousands enthralled; he was a master celebrant.
Someone watching a Humans show for the first time might be forgiven for assuming the guy was a pathological egomaniac, simply unable to control himself. But then you'd be in a restaurant, enjoying a small jazz combo and peer through the darkness to realize the guy on the traps, deferring to the singer or keyboardist, was Phil Pollard himself. Wearing regular clothes as if he were just an ordinary guy, and doing his job. He was a madman at center stage, but seemed mainly reliable when he took the back seat.
He contained multitudes. In the sunlight, one on one, he was a friendly, smart guy with a childlike curiosity about almost everything. His questions carried a sometimes surprising urgency. He looked you in the eye and spoke intently, as if some revelation was just up around the corner, and each person he talked to held an important clue to a conclusion we all needed to know.
Though he had lived in Richmond in recent years, for family reasons, he kept up his presence in Knoxville, and was scheduled to perform this Friday evening at the Knoxville Museum of Art, with his friend Jack Rentfro. That show will go on as a tribute. It's free, but they'll be collecting for an education fund for Phil's three daughters.