Taking the long view: UMass Fine Arts Center Director Willie Hill, Jr. reflects on his tenure

  • Dr. Willie Hill, Jr. is retiring after 20 years of leading the UMass Fine Arts Center as its director.  Photo by Ben Barnhart/courtesy UMass Fine Arts Center

  • FAC director Dr. Willie Hill Jr., who’s been involved with music since his early teens, has continued to conduct jazz groups, big bands and other ensembles around the country.  Gazette file photo

  • The UMass Fine Arts Center has featured nearly 1,600 performances, such as the one here by Doug Varone and Dancers, and other events during the 20 years that Willie Hill, Jr. has served as director. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann/Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2019 3:52:09 PM

Dr. Willie Hill, Jr. has been the director of the Fine Arts Center (FAC) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for over 20 years — but his career in the arts and in music education goes back over half a century.

Hill, who is stepping down from the FAC this Friday, says that when he looks back on his career, he can see that it all got started with guidance from his former high school music teacher, who helped him get a college education in the 1960s. 

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Hill started playing tenor saxophone when he was in eighth grade. His teacher at Williamson High School, Ulysses S. Miller, gave him a leadership role within the marching band and introduced him to the band director at Grambling College, now Grambling State University, in Louisiana.

“He picked me up one Friday and drove me from Mobile … to Grambling, which was probably an eight-hour car drive,” said Hill. “He introduced me to the band leader there. I auditioned. I interviewed. I ended up with a partial scholarship for one semester. The band director told me that if I did well with my academics and if I showed leadership skills, then I’d get a boost in scholarship.” 

During that first semester at Grambling, an Historically Black College, Hill says he obtained top grades in all of his classes. But a college education wasn’t something he or his parents initially planned for his future, he said. 

“[Miller] was responsible for me getting there because my parents could not afford to send me to college,” Hill said. “Again, I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. My parents had nothing, really. There was no way that they could put me through college, but he felt there was something to me in terms of my talent and what I had to offer. He was really determined that I [go] to college.” 

At Grambling, Hill became an assistant drum major during his sophomore year and then head drum major as a junior and senior. And during that time, he led the school’s marching band at halftime during the first-ever Super Bowl, in January 1967 in Los Angeles. There were two bands: an all-black marching band from Grambling, and an all-white band from the University of Arizona.

Looking back on the experience, Hill recalls he was mainly concerned that the Grambling band put on a good performance. The civil rights movement was in full swing, as African Americans fought against segregation in the South and prejudice in U.S. society as a whole, and Hill saw himself and the band as emissaries of a sort.

“I didn’t even realize that [playing at the Super Bowl] was going to be a history maker,” he said. “My whole thing during that time was to make sure that we represented the college at the highest level. We were really representing black America during that time. That had never been done before.

“For us to represent a culture, a group of individuals and an institution was paramount for me,” Hill added.

Twenty-five years later, at a music educators conference in Arizona, he met members of the 1967 University of Arizona marching band for the first time, at a dinner organized by former members of the band. 

“That was a thrill,” Hill said. “We really could not talk to each other [in 1967]. The band members really never interacted with each other because of the times. That just didn’t happen.” 

A life in music and arts

Before becoming director of the FAC in 1999, Hill spent 20 years in the Denver Public Schools in instrumental music education and 11 years at the University of Colorado-Boulder as a music professor and assistant dean of the College of Music. Hill’s appointment as FAC director followed the 20-year tenure of Dr. Frederick C. Tills, who led the center from 1978 to 1998 (the FAC opened in 1975).

“There’s nothing I regret about the decisions I’ve made with my career,” Hill said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every aspect and I think that’s kind of rare … Those first 20 years in the public schools built a foundation for what I’m doing at UMass now. And each of those experiences that I had was a growth experience to the next experience.” 

Nearly 1,600 performances and other events have taken place at the Fine Arts Center during the past two decades under Hill’s leadership as director, according to FAC staff. Hill says he makes it a priority to attend every performance with his wife, Beverly, whenever he’s in town.

He’s seen some of his favorite performers at the center over the years: legendary blues guitarist B.B. King, Latin and Cuban musical ensemble The Buena Vista Social Club, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and more. 

Another highlight of his Fine Arts Center tenure, he says, has been working alongside a dedicated and creative staff who are “committed to enriching the lives of individuals on our campus and also in our extended community.” 

As he said in a Gazette interview a few years ago, the FAC has focused during the last several years on offering a range of artistic events — dance, theater, jazz and classical and world music — as well as expanded multicultural arts programming “that reflects both the community here and our extended community.” 

Community outreach is also part of the FAC’s mission. One example is the “Jazz in July” program, in which 4,500 students from more than 100 schools in the region are able to attend Fine Arts Center performances, to learn outside of the classroom. 

“Many people might view the director of the FAC as a purely administrative position. Willie certainly performs those duties, but he does so much more,” Terry Peters, a member of the Friends of the Fine Arts Center Board, said in a statement. “Through sheer force of his ebullient personality, he has connected and welcomed countless newcomers and long-time friends to celebrate and support the FAC.” 

Outside of his work as FAC director, Hill conducts jazz ensembles, professional big bands and high school and state honor bands across the country at jazz festivals and other settings — even the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, Florida. 

“[Conducting] has really helped me a great deal in terms of keeping the artistic edge, so that I can do the work that I can do at the Fine Arts Center,” he said. 

Now, after working in some capacity since was 16, Hill said he plans to spend the next year traveling with his wife. The couple are looking forward to becoming “snowbirds,” while living part of the year at their home in Amherst. 

A search for Hill’s successor is currently underway, according to the Fine Arts Center. An announcement is planned for sometime this spring. 

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com. 





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