A ‘giant of a man’: Friends, colleagues recall legacy of Frederick Tillis 

  • The late Frederick C. Tillis, professor emeritus of music and former director of the UMass Fine Arts Center.  BEN BARNHART/SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Frederick C. Tillis. UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST

Staff Writer
Published: 5/6/2020 4:43:43 PM

AMHERST — During his nearly 20-year leadership of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts, director emeritus Dr. Frederick C. Tillis, who died at the age of 90 on Sunday, ensured jazz music had a place of prominence on the campus while making the center home to regular performances by world-class musicians.

“Fred was a very important figure in the Valley and for the university,” says Jeffrey Holmes, director of the university’s Jazz and African American Music Studies department, who was hired to a faculty position by Tillis 40 years ago. “He was an educator and administrator that performers respected immensely. He was an immense treasure.”

A musician, composer, poet and arts advocate — as well as the co-founder and director emeritus of the Jazz in July summer music program — Tillis demonstrated an ability to connect with acclaimed musicians, including jazz drummer Max Roach and pianist Billy Taylor, who both joined the faculty at UMass. He even got jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to play at UMass.

Overseeing the Fine Arts Center from 1978 until his retirement 1997, Tillis started some of the university’s most successful art initiatives, including the Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies program, the New World Theater, the Augusta Savage Gallery and the Asian Arts and Culture Program.

While he was “always talking about jazz as America’s classical music," Holmes said, Tillis showed commitment to a global perspective in helping to establish jazz studies programs at both the University of Fort Hare in South Africa and Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and by serving on several cultural boards, such as the International Association of Jazz Educators and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts.

Maxine Roach, who met Tillis in 1989 when she was a violist with the Uptown String Quartet, wrote in an email that it was her father’s idea to create a string quartet dedicated to performing and composing music from the African American tradition, including Tillis’s arrangement of the spiritual, “And He Never Said A Mumblin’ Word.” 

“Using the spiritual as a vehicle for his craft, he spoke to the similarities between Western European classical music and African American music,” Roach said. “His music also spoke to the commonality of man and to four black female string players who were passionate about spreading that good news.” 

In an interview at the time of his retirement, Tillis said he was most proud of the cultural diversity he brought to the Fine Arts Center.

“Along with recognizing our great western tradition, if you look at demographics, we’re browner,” Tillis said. “Our arts should reflect that.”

Esther Terry, emeritus chairwoman of the department of Afro-American Studies and a close family friend, called Tillis a “giant of a man.”

“The breadth of his knowledge and the height of his achievement are indeed remarkable,” Terry said. “But what I also learned from him over the years was that I was blessed to be in his presence, and that neither knowledge nor achievement is worth much if not placed in the service of humanity.”

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said in a statement that Tillis leaves an extraordinary legacy.

“Fred was proud of the program he built at the Fine Arts Center and was devoted to its long-term viability,” Subbaswamy said. “He was a strong advocate for the performing arts and the preservation of cultural heritage.”

Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1930, Tillis began to play jazz trumpet and saxophone professionally, as Baby Tillis, before he was a teenager.

Growing up in a segregated school system, at 16 he enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, earning his bachelor’s degree three years later, and then teaching music education there.

At the University of Iowa under Philip Bezanson, Tillis earned a master’s degree in 1952, which was followed by a four-year stint in the Army Air Corps, where he led the Air Force band. He then returned to Wiley and North Texas State before getting his doctorate at Iowa.

From 1964 to 1970, Tillis taught at Grambling State University and Kentucky State University, arriving at UMass 50 years ago when he was recruited to teach full time by Bezanson.

In addition to his leadership role at the Fine Arts Center, Tillis is also known for more than 100 compositions, including works for piano and voice, orchestra and chorus, along with chamber music and works in the African-American spiritual tradition. As a poet, he published 15 books.

Holmes said he appreciated reading Tillis’s poetry and getting copies of signed books on occasion, describing his writing as authentic and a genuine response to how he felt, with spiritual and Gospel roots.

“We all feel very fortunate to have had him all these years,” Holmes said.

Tillis received a variety of awards and represented the UMass music department and the university as a cultural ambassador, performing locally, nationally and internationally with students, alumni and faculty, including Holmes, Salvatore Macchia, David Sporny and Horace Boyer.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Library holds the Frederick Tillis papers, which document his leadership role in arts administration and as a composer and poet. This collection includes a large number of his original compositions, including the “Spiritual Fantasy” series and “In the Spirit and the Flesh,” two of his most in-depth works, as well as compositions from before his tenure at UMass.

Tillis was predeceased by his wife, Louise, and is survived by his daughters Pamela and Patricia; nieces Edna Louise Richards, Janet Levingston-Williams Lawrence and Glendra Gunishaw-Johnson; son-in law Paul Hammacott; and several great-nieces and great-nephews.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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