Frederick C. Tillis

Fred Tillis in from the of Bromery Center of Fine Art

Dr. Frederick Tillis, a noted composer and music scholar, was recruited to join the UMass faculty by music department head Philip Bezanson in 1970. In 1978, Bromery tapped Tillis to serve as director of the Fine Arts Center. Tillis went on to serve as Fine Arts Center director for nearly 20 years. He remained connected to the organization after his retirement in 1997 until his death in 2020 at age 90. Tillis is remembered as a musician, composer, educator, poet and arts advocate.

Tillis profoundly shaped the cultural and musical landscape at UMass Amherst, the Pioneer Valley and beyond. His work as a performer and composer spanned jazz and European music traditions, encompassing a wide range of cultural references. His more than 100 compositions include works for piano and voice, orchestra and chorus, along with chamber music and works in the African-American spiritual tradition. Tillis published 15 books of poetry.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said, “Dr. Fred Tillis was both an extraordinary artist and a leader in establishing many of the university’s landmark cultural programs. He joined the UMass community in 1970 as a faculty member and went on to become director of the Fine Arts Center eight years later, helping launch Jazz in July, New World Theater and the Asian Arts and Culture program, as well as many other initiatives. Naming our premier performance hall in his memory is a richly deserved honor.”

A native of Galveston, Texas, Tillis began to play jazz trumpet and saxophone professionally before his teens, known as Baby Tillis. Growing up in a segregated school system, Tillis enrolled in Wiley College when he was only 16, and earned his bachelor’s degree three years later. Immediately upon graduating, he began teaching at the college, beginning a long career in music education. He received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1952. After a four-year stint in the United States Air Force, where he led the Air Force Band, Tillis returned to teaching at Wiley before returning to Iowa to complete his Ph.D. From 1964 to 1970, he taught at Grambling State University and Kentucky State University until he was recruited by Bezanson to teach full time at UMass Amherst in 1970.

While at UMass, Tillis founded a number of programs and courses of study that greatly enriched the life of music majors and the general student body. In 1978, he was appointed director of the Fine Arts Center and helped start some of the university’s most successful art initiatives, including the jazz and Afro-American Music Studies program, the Jazz in July Summer Music Program, the New World Theater, the Augusta Savage Gallery and the Asian Arts and Culture Program. He also received several awards and represented UMass as a cultural ambassador, performing locally, nationally and internationally with students, alumni and faculty such as Salvatore Macchia, Jeffrey Holmes, David Sporny and Horace Boyer.

Fine Arts Center Director Jamilla Deria said, “Dr. Tillis bestowed an indelible legacy upon us grounded in his commitment to present, preserve and advance both Western and non-Western cultural practice and definitively establish UMass Amherst as an educational leader in America’s only classical music tradition – jazz.”

Upon his retirement in 1997, Tillis was appointed the emeritus director of the Fine Arts Center. The W.E.B. Du Bois Library maintains the Frederick Tillis papers, which document an extraordinary career in the arts and in arts administration, as well as his work as a composer and poet. The collection contains 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.

Additional Reading

Frederick Tillis Website

New York Times Tribute to Frederick Tillis

Compositions on the American Composers Alliance Website