Video tribute honors late UMass professor Tillis

  • Fred Tillis playing the saxophone, one of his many talents. CONTRIBUTED/EDWARD COHEN

  • Fred Tillis applauding at his 90th birthday concert celebration in February 2020. ELIZABETH SOLAKA/COURTESY UMASS MUSIC AND DANCE DEPARTMENT

Staff Writer
Published: 5/3/2021 12:06:53 PM

AMHERST — When Dr. Frederick C. Tillis turned 90 in February 2020, his birthday and long tenure as music professor at the University of Massachusetts and years as Fine Arts Center director were celebrated during a live performance.

Less than a month after the third annual Bezanson Legacy Concert, the COVID-19 pandemic would curtail similar in-person events, and Tillis, director emeritus of the Fine Arts Center, would die unexpectedly on May 3, 2020.

In the year since his death, Tillis’ importance, both at UMass and beyond, continues to be marked, with a virtual tribute recently premiering on the department of music and dance’s YouTube channel prior to the broadcast of its annual Jazz Showcase last week, and the acquisition by the Library of Congress of a performance of his composition “Song for Sister Haikkado” by Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony.

Department Chairman Salvatore Macchia explains in the tribute why Tillis remains a towering figure.

“Dr. Tillis’ contribution to our campus, to the university at large, and quite frankly to the world of music is really an incredibly wonderful and joyous thing to behold and to remember,” Macchia says.

During his tenure at UMass, which began in 1970, Tillis founded the department’s jazz and African-American music studies program. At the Fine Arts Center, as director from 1978 to 1997, he helped to establish the Jazz in July Program, the New World Theater, the Augusta Savage Gallery and the Asian Arts and Culture Program.

Macchia also calls Tillis one of the nicest people he has ever met, with a warmth and humor, and a welcoming attitude, combined with knowledge.

Matt Longhi, spokesman for the UMass department, said Tillis’ death was a huge loss and that no one was more important than Tillis to the jazz program. The jazz and African-American music department under the leadership of Jeffrey Holmes was pleased to honor him. “He’s a legend, not only on the campus, but around the world,” Longhi said

For daughter Pamela Tillis, the tribute video, which can be viewed at, is an initial way to give credit to her father’s influence.

“I wanted to do something to commemorate the first year anniversary of my dad’s passing,” Tillis said, noting that due to the pandemic there haven’t been in-person events at UMass or in the community to recognize his leadership in promoting the arts.

She said more people continue to discover her father and his more than 100 compositions, including works for piano and voice, orchestra and chorus, as well as chamber music and works in the African American spiritual tradition.

The video tribute should also set the stage for a two-day event in February 2022 when performances of his compositions and reading of his poetry will take place, with scholars, composers and artists who will discuss his influence.

In addition to the remembrance from Macchia, the tribute video contains a full-length performance of Tillis’ “Blow Out the Candles of Your Cake” by voice professor Jamie-Rose Guarrine, cellist Karl Knapp, and pianist Ben Tibbetts, as well as other highlights from the concert a year ago. Photographs of Tillis observing the performances and mingling afterward are included.

Royal Hartigan, a musician and educator who studied with Tillis for a decade beginning in 1972, is among those who will not forget Tillis.

“Fred has inspired my work in music and I will always keep him in my life,” Hartigan said.

He added that so many other artists have come through the UMass programs and the Fine Arts Center building.

“It feels like home to see the people and hear the music, and in the space I and countless others studied, rehearsed and performed in,” Hartigan said.

Pamela Tillis said in addition to the event next February, she is also working on a short documentary about her father and is encouraging people to support the Tillis Endowment for the Arts that will help the Fine Arts Center resume programming when it’s safe to do so.

“Dad’s dream was always to have a $500,000 goal,” Tillis said. “There’s been an outpouring from people to support it and make that dream actualized.”

The fund is online at

The other anticipated event, she said, is to have the main concert hall at the Fine Arts Center named Tillis Hall.

The tribute video can be viewed at

The fund is online at


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