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PostHeaderIcon FREDERICK CHARLES TILLIS of AMHERST, MASS, January 5, 1930 – May 3, 2020

Dr. Frederick Charles Tillis, musician, composer, performer, poet, arts advocate and administrator, director emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center (FAC) and co-founder and director emeritus of its Jazz in July program – died at age 90 on Sunday, May 3, 2020 from hip replacement surgery complications after a fall. Dr. Tillis served as music department faculty, associate provost, associate chancellor for equal opportunity and diversity and the Fine Arts Center director for nearly 20 years but even in retirement remained connected to the music department and the Fine Arts Center, their staffs, and community. His passion and commitment for the arts and arts education extended well beyond each university community where he taught, touching and enriching lives throughout the world.
A performer and composer of unusual breadth, Dr. Tillis’ work profoundly shaped the cultural and musical life of UMass Amherst, the Pioneer Valley, and far beyond. His work spans the jazz, European, and African-American spiritual traditions, and encompasses an expansive range of diverse references with dynamic melodic and harmonic textures. His more than 100 compositions include works for piano and voice, orchestra and chorus, solo and chamber music. He authored the textbook entitled Jazz Theory and Improvisation and authored 15 books of poetry.
Dr. Tillis was born on January 5, 1930 in Galveston, Texas. His mother was Zelma Bernice Gardner and his stepfather was General Gardner. His musical talents were recognized at a very early age. At 12, he began to play jazz trumpet and saxophone professionally in local Galveston clubs, known as Baby Tillis because many adult musicians served in World War II. He was a graduate of the public Galveston schools including Central High School, the first Texas high school created for African Americans during segregation. Dr. Tillis enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas when he was only 16, beginning his teaching career while earning his bachelor’s degree. He was an honored member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity organization. Immediately upon graduating from Wiley at the age of 19, he returned there to teach, embarking upon a long career in music education. Dr. Tillis received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa under Dr. Philip Bezanson in 1952. After a four-year stint in the United States Air Force, where he conducted the Air Force band, he then resumed teaching at Wiley and North Texas State before returning to earn his Ph.D at the University of Iowa. From 1964 to 1970, Dr. Tillis taught at Grambling University and Kentucky State University respectively. As a young professor, he played the clarinet, the viola, and the piano in addition to the trumpet and saxophone. He also continued directing marching bands and orchestras. He was recruited by Dr. Bezanson to teach full time at UMass Amherst in 1970.
While at UMass, Dr. Tillis founded numerous programs and courses of study that greatly enriched campus life. In 1978, he was appointed the director of the Fine Arts Center and helped start some of the university’s most successful arts initiatives, including the Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies programs, Jazz in July Summer Music program, New World Theater, Black Musicians Conference, Bright Moments Festival, Augusta Savage Gallery and the Asian Arts and Culture Program. He 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, Nadine Shank, Richard du Bois, Estella Olevsky, David Sporny, and Horace Clarence Boyer. He traveled with the University of Massachusetts Music Department, the Tillis-Holmes Jazz Duo and the Tradewinds Jazz Ensemble to several countries including Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, England, Fiji, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, the former Soviet Union, Switzerland, and Turkey. During his career, he also taught music courses at Amherst College.
Among his commissioned compositions are “Ring Shout Concerto” for percussion, written for Max Roach and premiered by Max Roach and symphony orchestra (1974); “Concerto for Trio Pro Viva” commissioned by the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and D. Antoinette Handy (1980); “Concerto for Piano” (Jazz Trio) and symphony orchestra written for Billy Taylor and performed with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (1983); “A Festival Journey” written for Max Roach and commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Shaw (1992); and “A Symphony of Songs,” a choral/orchestral work based on poems by Wallace Stevens and commissioned by The Hartford Chorale, Inc. (1999). His recordings include The Tillis-Holmes Jazz Duo, Contrasts and Diversions (1987); Paintings in Sound for Solo Saxophone (1989); Among Friends with the Billy Taylor Trio (1992); Freedom (1996); Festival Journey Concerto with Max Roach and the New Orchestra of Boston (1998); and Frederick Tillis – Music for Peace and Goodwill (2005).
Dr. Tillis has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the UMass Distinguished Faculty Lecturer’s Award, the 1997 Commonwealth Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, outstanding service award from the International Association of Jazz Educators, commendations from UMass Jazz and African-American Studies Program, UMass Afro-American Studies Department, WFCR, Wiley College, Old Central Cultural Center and Reedy Chapel Church in Galveston, Texas. Dr. Tillis received a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in composition, two United Negro College Fund fellowships, and was a Danforth Associate. Dr. 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 served 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. Upon his retirement from UMass in 1997, Dr. Tillis was awarded the honorific title emeritus director of the Fine Arts Center. He continued performing, composing, lecturing, and writing until recent years. The W.E.B. Du Bois Library maintains the Frederick Tillis papers, which document his extraordinary career.
Dr. and Mrs. Tillis were active and committed members of the Amherst community for decades. They participated in many local initiatives and were longtime philanthropists for numerous cultural and educational organizations locally and nationally including the University of Massachusetts, the ABC House, Jones Library, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Northampton Community Music Center, Springfield Symphony Orchestra, University of Iowa, Wiley College, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, the American Composers Alliance, and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
Dr. Tillis is pre-deceased by his parents, Zelma Bernice Gardner and General Gardner; his wife and partner of 66 years, Edna Louise; and is survived by his daughters Patricia and Pamela; nieces Edna Louise Richards, Janet Levingston-Williams Lawrence, and Glendra Gunishaw-Johnson; nephew Marshall Gunishaw III; son-in-law Paul Hammacott; longtime family friends Helen and James Smith, and several great nieces and nephews. Dr. Tillis was laid to rest at Wildwood Cemetery on Friday, May 8, 2020. A public celebration is planned for a future date. A memorial page has been established online at where people can visit to leave remembrances. The Tillis Family so warmly thanks all of Dr. Tillis’ legions of friends, colleagues, students, and admirers. We feel your outpouring of love and thank you so dearly for your kindnesses. A special thank you to Ester Bedford, Rosangela Marquez, Kay Montgomery, and Marie Hess for their loving care of Dr. Tillis.

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