Frederick C. Tillis, UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center Director Emeritus, Dies at Age 90

Musician, composer, author created enduring legacy in the performing arts
Dr. Frederick C. Tillis
Dr. Frederick C. Tillis

AMHERST, Mass. – Dr. Frederick C. Tillis  –  musician, composer, poet, arts advocate, director emeritus of the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center (FAC) and co-founder and director emeritus of the Jazz in July program  – died at age 90 on Sunday, May 3.

Tillis served as the FAC director for nearly 20 years but even in retirement remained connected to the FAC, its staff and community. He also continued performing, composing music and writing poetry in recent years. His passion for the arts and commitment to arts education made this community and the lives of all he touched richer and more expansive. 

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said, “Dr. Fred Tillis leaves an extraordinary legacy at UMass Amherst. He was a gentle soul who made me feel at once like we had known each other a long time. Fred was proud of the program he built at the Fine Arts Center and was devoted to its long-term viability. He was a strong advocate for the performing arts and the preservation of cultural heritage.”

As a composer, performer, poet, educator, and arts administrator, Tillis profoundly shaped the cultural and musical life at UMass Amherst, the Pioneer Valley and beyond. A performer and composer of unusual breadth, his work spans both the jazz and European traditions, and encompassed 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. As a poet, he published 15 books.

Current FAC Director Jamilla Deria said, “I did not have the opportunity to know Dr. Tillis well, but I've felt his indelible imprint in every facet of our work. From our very first meeting last summer to our many brief encounters at performances throughout the year, it was clear to me that the FAC was not just a place he worked, but was in fact a piece of him.”

Tillis was born in 1930 in Galveston, Texas, and began to play jazz trumpet and saxophone professionally before his teens; known as Baby Tillis. Growing up in a segregated school system, Tillis enrolled at Wiley College when he was only 16, and earned his bachelor’s degree three years later. Immediately upon graduating from Wiley, he began to teach at the college, beginning a long career in music education. Tillis received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa under Philip Bezanson in 1952. After a four-year stint in the Army Air Corps, where he led the Air Force band, Tillis then resumed teaching at Wiley and North Texas State before returning to the University of Iowa to receive his Ph.D. From 1964 to 1970, Tillis 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 FAC 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 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 such as Salvatore Macchia, Jeffrey Holmes, David Sporny and Horace Boyer.

Tillis was an influential educator, helping to establish the jazz studies programs at both the University of Fort Hare, South Africa and the Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and serving on several cultural boards including the International Association of Jazz Educators and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and review committees at the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Dr. Willie Hill, former FAC director and Tillis’ successor, was also a student of his. Hill said, “He has meant so much to me since 1964, when I had the privilege of having him as my music theory and orchestra teacher at Grambling State University for two years. Dr. Tillis was a giant in the music and arts education arenas and a visionary arts administrator. He will be sorely missed for his unselfish contributions to our organization, by the FAC staff, advisory board, friends and UMass community at large.”

Upon his retirement from UMass in 1997, Tillis was appointed 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 Tillis’ role as a composer and poet. The 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.

Close family friend and Emeritus faculty and Chair of Afro-American Studies, Esther Terry offered, “I loved Fred Tillis. The breadth of his knowledge and the height of his achievement are indeed remarkable; 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. We are saying goodbye to this giant of a man at a time when his influence is most needed in our country and in the world. But we will always have his example.”

NEPR hosts Walter Carroll and Tom Reney honored Tillis’ 90th birthday and his works in their January and February programming, broadcasting Niger Symphony, his rendition of Motherless Child; his performances of When Lights Are Low, It Ain’t Necessarily So and Memories of You, along with a movement from the Festival Journey Concerto and the piece Freedom. Before the pandemic shutdown, his composition Three Showpieces for Viola was performed by Jannina Norpoth at the Detroit Institute of Arts in February and his composition Spiritual Fantasy No. 12 was performed by the Arianna String Quartet at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in March.

Tillis is pre-deceased by his wife, Louise and 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 nephews.

A celebration of Tillis’ life will be planned for a future date. In the meantime, an online memorial page is available for people to visit, view photos and leave remembrances.

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