Jazz Artists in the Schools Program Returns to Northampton High School after a Two-Year Hiatus due to the Pandemic
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Elliot Ross Memorial Jazz Artists in the Schools program has returned to Northampton High School with five guest musicians teaching four sessions to students in the Jazz and Rock Improvisation Workshop.
This visiting musician teaching program is solely funded through donations from family and friends of the late Elliot Ross, a musician and graduate of the high school. Ross died at age 21 in November 2018. By request of the Ross family, the Northampton Jazz Festival established the Jazz Artists in the Schools program at Northampton High School the following year.
Donations to the program now top $15,000 and make it possible for students of music at the high school to gain insight, tips and techniques from professional, working musicians.
Led by band director Paul Kinsman, the program is a collaboration between Kinsman and Northampton Jazz Festival’s Creative Director and Producer Paul Arslanian.
“I am so grateful for all the guest lecturers Paul Arslanian is bringing in, and the Ross family that has kept this program going. It’s really important that we keep jazz in the schools, and this has really helped us come back strong after two years when we were silenced,” said Kinsman.
This spring, five visiting musicians have visited the high school to teach four sessions each of Kinsman’s Jazz and Rock Improvisation Workshop, an elective scheduled during normal academic hours. Each guest musician has led a clinic and workshopped with the students on various topics around the art of improvisation to help hone their skills.
“Jazz as a genre of music is so diverse and so wide that having a different guest musician come in every week has really exposed me to different ideas that I can absorb and then incorporate into my improvisations,” said Ilan Bryant, a pianist and senior at the school. “I have also been surprised by how the diversity of the other student musicians around me has helped me grow in this class.”
The guest musicians have included Evan Arntzen, a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist who received his master’s from the Jazz Arts program at The Manhattan School of Music this spring; George Kaye, a lifelong professional jazz bassist; Gabe Childs, a guitarist and recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music; Justin Esiason, a professional trumpeter and a graduate in music at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Dave Haughey, a professional cellist, composer, teacher and improviser.
“For me, starting out improvising, listening to all of the greats play, it was really frustrating to me because it wasn’t as easy to play as they made it sound,” said Bryant. “So, to actually have seasoned musicians come in and break down improvising in all these different parts makes me appreciate how difficult, how complicated and how interesting it is, but it has also allowed me to take steps in the right direction to work on my own solo.”
The visiting musicians were given the opportunity to teach students different aspects of improvisation given their own professional experience. Topics included melodic variations in improvisation, harmonic considerations in improvisation, the role of guide tones and voicings in improvisation and the role of rhythm in improvisation.
“Each one of the guest musicians is an improviser at a high level and brings his/her own perspective to this very large field of music—improvisation and jazz in general. Having that many different perspectives really benefits the students’ growth,” said Kinsman.
On April 8, visiting musician Gabe Childs asked each student to play a solo during the song “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb. After their solos, Childs gave each student feedback, the student musicians critiqued their own solos and then members of the class commented on the solo as well.
“Hearing what everyone else had to say about that person was so nice, and the things they were saying were so encouraging to each other. It was a beautiful moment,” said Childs. “The fact that they were able to point out the great parts of what each person did was just so nice. That’s the fundamental essence of artistry—being able to point out what is exceptional.”
To watch a video of the students' rendition of, "Sunny" by Bobby Hebb, click here.
For more information about the Jazz Artists in the Schools Program, click here.
Published in BusinessWest, Wednesday, February 16, 2022. Link to article
Ruth Griggs was having coffee with Amy Cahillane one day in 2017, when Cahillane, who had recently taken charge of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., posed a question.
“She said, ‘what do you think about the Jazz Festival?” Griggs recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’”
Cahillane told Griggs that, in her interactions with people downtown, she kept getting asked questions like, “can we have the Jazz Festival back? We miss live music downtown. What happened to the festival? Can you get it back?”
Griggs had been involved in the first incarnation of the Northampton Jazz Festival, from 2011 to 2015, after returning to her hometown following a three-decade marketing career in New York City. “I went to the shows, and once they got to know I was a marketing professional, I kind of was an advisor to them. I was never on the board, but I was definitely an advisor and helped them out quite a bit, the last two years in particular.”
Then the festival went away for two years, and Cahillane was angling to get Griggs and others who had supported it in the past to bring it back to life, promising to help build stronger relationships between the festival and city leaders and boost marketing and fundraising efforts.
“Having a strong presence downtown and good relationships downtown was really important to me, and I also know all the jazz people who knew how to put on that festival, some of whom had been involved in previous festivals,” Griggs said. “So I set to work to rally some support.”
The biggest challenge at the time, she said, was not losing the event’s 501(c)(3) status, which had been achieved right before the final festival in 2015. “If you let a 501(c)(3) go without any kind of documentation to the feds or the state for three years, it’s gone. And I could not let that happen.”
So Griggs and others formed a board, pulled the festival back from the brink, and started planning for the return of the event in 2018. Oh, and that board put Griggs in charge.
It made sense — since returning from New York in 2011, she had built a marketing firm, RC Communications, that focused on small to mid-sized businesses and especially nonprofits, which are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the region. She has also been a board member with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years and is currently its immediate past vice president.
“I am a marketing strategist by trade, and, as such, I am good at seeing the big picture, keeping my eye on the vision and mission of an organization,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “When you combine that with my work in nonprofits over the last 15 years, that adds up to the type of experience that enables me to lead a nonprofit, which, of course, is what the Jazz Fest is at the end of the day.”
Her leadership in the chamber and her role as an entrepreneur with RC Communications have helped her build a wide network in the business community, she added.
“I also just have a knack for getting things done; I am a doer,” she went on. “Fundraising for the Jazz Fest, which is a big part of what I do, benefits from these relationships. As president of the board, I oversee all operations of the festival and keep everyone’s eye on the ball, but I have a particular focus on marketing and fundraising and community relations, with the help of Amy Cahillane.”
Within that model, she leaves the choosing and booking of the musicians and the running of the performances to five producers who serve on the board. And the model works, with the two-day October festival roaring back to life in 2018 and following that with successful outings in 2019 and 2021 as well; pandemic-disrupted 2020 saw a series of virtual performances instead.
But that success isn’t contained to the festival, or even to jazz lovers. As a two-day event held in locations scattered throughout the downtown (more on that in a bit), the event promotes the downtown corridor and boosts its businesses, making the festival’s success a true economic-development story, and Griggs a Difference Maker.
“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton,” she said. “I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”
Taking It to the Streets
One key factor in the festival’s growing impact on downtown Northampton is a change in how it’s staged. From 2011 to 2015, it was presented in the Armory Street Parking Lot behind Thornes Marketplace. Along with the music stage was a beer tent, food vendors, a chef competition, and an art fair. It was a fun, multi-activity event, and attendees enjoyed it, Griggs said.
“What I felt was lacking was, if you were on Main Street, you had no idea anything was going on,” she explained. “It was tucked behind Thornes. It was efficient in that everything took place in one place, but there wasn’t a lot of space for an audience.”
Then, Cahillane and board member Paul Arslanian both came up with the same idea independently for the 2018 festival.
“In order to keep the cost down, which had gotten very high, and to be more all around town, they said, ‘let’s stage it in different places,’” Griggs said of the decision to schedule music acts inside downtown businesses, requiring attendees to move around to see them all.
“The idea was to get people to walk from place to place and stop in at a gallery or stop in at a restaurant or stop in at a café, and we would leave time in between shows so people could do that,” she explained. “Half the mission is supporting the economy of Northampton and bringing vibrancy back, which is what people said they wanted.”
Saturday’s slate of performances ends with the only ticketed show of the festival, a nationally known headliner at the Academy of Music. In recent years, that show has featured the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet in 2018, the Kurt Elling Quintet in 2019, and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration in 2021, featuring five original members of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The model has worked well, Griggs said, although the board has talked about streamlining it by bringing the venues closer together. One thing that won’t change, however, is the Friday Jazz Strut, which features local and regional bands, including student bands, and overlapping performance schedules.
“We stage the music a half-hour apart, and every band plays for two hours,” she noted. “That definitely gets people all over town, patronizing the restaurants and breweries and cafés. And that’s important.”
Speaking of students, the festival board also supports jazz education through a program called Jazz Artists in the Schools, in which Arslanian secures jazz artists from big cities across the Northeast to workshop with local high-school jazz bands.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from musicians who make music, who have successfully made music their life — active, performing musicians,” Griggs said.
While “the board is the Jazz Festival,” she said, noting that it’s certainly a working board with year-round responsibilities, the festival itself also pulls in dozens of young volunteers each year, and she’s been moved by the sentiments they’ve expressed.
“One said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll be a runner, whatever you need for this to run smoothly; this is important,’” she recalled. A woman who had recently moved from Brooklyn said, “when I found out that Northampton has a jazz festival, I thought, ‘wow, this is a cool down, I want to live here, this is really cool.’
“That’s important for me to hear,” Griggs noted, adding that one vocalist who took part in the Jazz Strut clamored for more involvement and is now serving on the board. That’s critically important to me,” she went on. “I want this to last. I’ve been at this now since 2017, and I’ll be darned if, when I step down, it dies. That cannot happen. I would feel I failed if that happened. It’s critically important. So we need to keep bringing in the younger players and the younger musicians and the younger people who really care about keeping it alive. I think the Jazz Festival is now, and will be, an important feather in Northampton’s cap.”
Another volunteer and musician noted the 2021 festival’s increased slate of women performers, telling Griggs that was a definite plus for such an event in Northampton. She was impressed by young jazz enthusiasts pointing that fact out. “The goal is to continue to showcase women in jazz.”
Griggs has certainly shone over the years as a woman in marketing. As noted, she worked in New York City for 30 years, marketing for dot-com firms, mutual funds, and large corporations like American Express and Coca-Cola. She and her husband actually owned a firm for eight of those years, doing mostly financial-services marketing.
“That was lucrative, but totally intangible,” she said. “I got so tired of marketing credit cards and things like that.”
Then, while taking her teenage sons on college tours, she fell in love with higher education and the idea of “marketing people.” So she segued into higher-ed marketing for Queensborough Community College in the city.
“It totally changed my life. I felt like I got a crash course in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, because I reported to Development.”
When she returned to Northampton in 2011, she carried that experience with her into her new firm, RC Communications, working with a host of nonprofits in the Valley. She was also part of the Creative, a marketing enterprise she formed with Janice Beetle and Maureen Scanlon.
“But I was getting so involved in the chamber and the Jazz Festival, I felt like I needed to pull back and be semi-retired,” she told BusinessWest. While she still works with a few long-time clients, the rest of her time is split between the Jazz Festival, the chamber, her role chairing the investment committee at Edwards Church, and also Valley Jazz Voices, a group, formed in 2015, of 30 vocalists who sing exclusively jazz throughout region. “I just have so many initiatives I’m doing in the community, I just feel fortunate that I can spend more time doing them.”
She sees a symbiosis in these roles, just as she does between the Jazz Festival and the downtown environment it lifts up, and gets a lift from in return.
“The relationships I’ve made in the chamber are helpful to my business, and also helpful to the Jazz Festival, which is, in turn, helpful to the town. It’s a complete full circle.”
And a full life, one with the controlled, yet exciting, rhythm of a jazz performance — a life of true impact, note by note.
“I feel like I’m making a difference that people see most visibly — in the Jazz Fest — because of all the other things I do,” Griggs said. “It’s all of those things that I think make a difference together.”
As published in BusinessWest, Wednesday, February 16, 2022, by Joseph Bednar
who can be reached at email@example.com
The Northampton Jazz Festival would like to thank the scores of people, businesses and organizations that made the 2021 jazz festival such a success.
The Northampton Jazz Festival, now in its 10th year, holds fast to its mission of carrying forward the uniquely American musical tradition we call jazz, while also bringing visitors to downtown Northampton to support the local economy.
We were fortunate that the weather was divine, the music delightful, and the community spirit lively on Friday and Saturday, October 1 & 2 throughout downtown Northampton. We staged 15 music concerts by over 50 musicians in 10 different locations over two days, filling the air with the sounds of live music and the venues and streets with concert-goers.
The nine-member board of the Northampton Jazz Festival is the engine behind the success of this year’s festival, but we were beyond fortunate to bolster our ranks with no less than 34 expert volunteers who imbued the festival with openness, accessibility and a welcoming spirit for which we are incredibly grateful.
We had to cancel the 2020 festival due to the pandemic, but our corporate, business and organizational sponsors were there for us this again year, providing the highest level of financial and in-kind advertising support we have ever received. The City of Northampton once again had our backs, supporting us with partnership from Brian Foote and team at the Northampton Arts Council, Debra J’Anthony and her pros at the Academy of Music, the DPW, City Police, and the Mayor’s office. There would be no Northampton Jazz Festival without your support – offered in a myriad of valuable ways.
Finally, and so importantly, the collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Women’s March, which held a rally for hundreds at the steps of City Hall simultaneous to the festival, went smoothly and harmoniously. We were thrilled to see marchers dance to the beat of the Expandable Brass Band as they marched together to Pulaski Park after the rally.
We are assembling a gallery of photos of this year’s fest by local photographers Julian Parker-Burns and Jonathan Caplan. Check back to northamptonjazzfest.org/gallery to view them soon.
Ruth Griggs, President
Have you been out to live arts lately? Have you thrilled to witness musicians and actors as they move you to laugh, cry, sing, and dance, and as you push them to dig deeper with your own creative response to them? I was blessed to take part in several live music events this fall. Laudable Productions gave us two nights of music at Mill Pond Park in Easthampton. And the Northampton Jazz Festival offered music on the streets and in the establishments of Paradise City as music lovers enjoyed dozens of concerts, almost all of then free for the taking. Most special to me was Cocomama in Pulaski Park and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration at the Academy of Music. Thank you to the organizers and patrons of live music events like these. You work so hard! I hope you know how huge a gift you bestow on your communities.
Rick Stone, Greenfield. MA
“If it’s Tuesday, it must be Jazz Night in Northampton.”
For the past ten years, each Tuesday at 7:30 PM, the Northampton Jazz Workshop has hosted a guest jazz artist, typically in from Boston, New York or Hartford–with the Green Street Trio backing them up–for a hour-long performance. This is some seriously good live jazz, that 60 to 100 guests enjoy each week as they dine and sit back at the bar. Then at 9 PM, the producer of the Jazz Workshop, Paul Arslanian, calls forward some of the many student and visiting musicians that have gathered at the back of the room to play together in a jazz jam. The place usually quiets down around 10:30.
The Northampton Jazz Workshop made its start in 2010 at the beloved French restaurant, the Green Street Cafe steps from the Smith College Campus. When the restaurant’s building was torn down, the Workshop packed up and moved to The Loft at the Clarion Hotel on Atwood Drive. Then when that hotel was torn down, the intrepid troupe moved to the City Sports Grille–the bar and lounge at Spare Time Entertainment on Pleasant Street.
Due to the pandemic, there has been no live jazz performed at City Sports Grille for the past year, and the Green Street Trio (Paul Arslanian on piano, George Kaye on bass, and Jon Fisher on drums) are eager to get back at it once it is safe to do so. And so are their hundreds of fans.
This month, in honor of April Jazz Appreciation Month and the Northampton Jazz Workshop, the Northampton Jazz Festival is presenting a virtual jazz series entitled “Up Jumped Spring” each Tuesday in April at 7:30 PM – because, well, it’s Jazz Night in Northampton.
Working collaboratively with Northampton Open Media and The Parlor Room, the Northampton Jazz Festival will produce four jazz performances of local and regional musicians that will stream over Facebook, YouTube, Channel 12 in Northampton and other online channels free each Tuesday in April at 7:30 PM. Ensembles will include the Convergence Trio, lead by pianist Eugene Uman, Director of the Vermont Jazz Center; Isosceles Groove, a highly talented family trio led by drummer Jacob Smith; the Fumi Tomita Trio, a bass player and professor of Music at UMass Amherst; and Carolyn Dufraine and company who will play a mixture of traditional and Gypsy jazz.
Make Tuesdays in April YOUR jazz night–visit northamptonjazzfest.org to learn more about these free concerts and how to log on to your favorite channel to hear some great, live jazz. Come out and support live jazz in April–Jazz Appreciation Month!
by Crystal Curran
Due to the current regulations regarding community health and limitations on public gatherings, The Board and Advisors have made the heavy decision to postpone the 2020 festival scheduled for the first weekend in October.
The Northampton Jazz Festival is a celebration of jazz music held yearly in downtown Northampton, collaborating with local businesses and talented musicians to provide the community with an unforgettable experience. From jazz strolls to intimate venues with Grammy Award winning performers, this weekend has become a staple of the community. This year’s lineup was set to include musicians that have performed on Broadway, held Billboard Top 100 titles, and been celebrated in DownBeat jazz magazine. We intend to secure as many of these musicians for their 2021 season as we can, such as the all-female combo Lioness and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration.
President Ruth Griggs who has lead the festival for three years laments on behalf of the organization that “we are truly saddened by the reality that this coronavirus has forced on us, but our most important goal is to provide a pleasurable, meaningful and safe experience for our jazz fans, jazz musicians and to our community partners. Unfortunately, we recognize that we just won’t be able to achieve that in this pandemic environment.”
While the festival may not grace the streets of downtown Northampton this year, the organization plans to maintain a strong social media presence to connect jazz lovers with live concerts they can safely watch from home.
The Board of Directors is working under the guidance of both city and state public health officials to collaborate with local musicians, city partners, and downtown businesses; through these means, they are creating a plan of how the organization can still provide the town with quality jazz performances in a safe way. As Massachusetts transitions through its four-phase plan, more details will be confirmed. While the festival can not continue as intended this year, we hope to bring a celebration of jazz music to the community in any form we can.
About Crystal Curran
Crystal Curran is the 2020 marketing intern for the Northampton Jazz Festival. She is going to be a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall of 2020, where she majors in music education and psychology, and is pursuing certificates in arts management and social work. She is heavily involved in the university’s ensembles, ranging from being a member of the flute Field Staff for marching band to being a member of the top auditioned choir, Chamber Choir. She also served as Vice President of House Council for the BCG cluster.
By Avery Sharpe
An inspirational artist, bassist Avery Sharpe has earned his reputation as a talented musician and skillful performer. As a student at UMass Amherst, he studied economics and learned to play the acoustic bass, encouraged by none other than Reggie Workman. Within a few years he was performing with such notables as Archie Shepp and Art Blakey. In 1980, Sharpe auditioned with McCoy Tyner and won a spot in the pianist’s group. He worked with Tyner almost continuously for 20 years, playing hundreds of live gigs and appearing on more than 20 records. From live gigs to studio sessions and more, Avery Sharpe continues to touch fans around the world with his distinct and enjoyable musical style.
I met Dr. Tillis in 1973, my second semester Freshman year at UMass. I was 18 years old and interested in music. I was playing electric bass at the time. I had seen the New York bass violin choir, with Ron Carter, Bill Lee, Richard Davis, Sam Jones, Lyle Atkinson and Milt Hinton at Bowker Auditorium, UMass and I was blown away. I wanted to get my hands on a double bass. Dr. Tillis probably had something to do with bringing them there. I spoke to Dr. Tillis about my interest in music and bass, he told me of his class on Improvisation and Jazz Theory, he also told me about the great bassist Reggie Workman who was teaching at UMass. I went to see Reggie at his office in New Africa House and told him I wanted to study bass and could I begin lessons with him in the fall of my sophomore year. I also began taking Dr. Tillis’ Jazz course. I was fascinated by his teaching and it was even more important that I saw how he, as an African American, navigated his way through a predominately white music establishment. His intellectual prowess and social and personal skills were amazing to me and had a profound affect on me as an African American. He immediately became a mentor to me. I got my first experience of playing in a big band that he directed. I continued to be impressed by his skills and was knocked out when I learned that he was also a skilled composer. I wanted to acquire the skills that he had and wanted to be multi-dimensional, as he was. He was always thoughtful and kind, he listened to me and helped me solve educational and personal problems. It is amazing when one person can have a profound affect on how you view music and the world; I can never repay him for all his great work and the eternal influence he has had on me and the world at large. The measure of a real man, and his legacy, is his ability to leave the world in a much better place than it was before his birth.
I will miss this bright light.
By Crystal Curran
Crystal Curran is the 2020 marketing intern for the Northampton Jazz Festival. She going to be a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall of 2020, where she majors in music education and psychology, and is pursuing certificates in arts management and social work. She is heavily involved in the university’s ensembles, ranging from being a member of the flute Field Staff for marching band to being a member of the top auditioned choir, Chamber Choir. She also served as Vice President of House Council for the BCG cluster.
Dr. Frederick C. Tillis--known for his long-standing legacy in the community as director of the Fine Arts Center (FAC), co-founder of Jazz in July, the New WORLD Theater, and Asian Arts and Culture Program at the FAC and outstanding musician--passed away on May 3rd at 90 years old due to post-surgery complications.
Dr. Tillis’s legacy at UMass follows over 20 years of serving in the music program, plus staying deeply involved after his retirement as emeritus director, and by attending concerts and supporting faculty members at the university. In addition to teaching and mentoring, he maintained a healthy performing career and was a prolific composer. He composed 100 original works ranging from choral pieces to African-American spirituals. He also wrote 15 books of poetry, proving that his talents transcended boundaries of creation.
Andrew Jaffe--jazz pianist, composer, recording artist and emeritus Williams College Music department —wrote of Fred Tillis, "Fred was a fine composer, instrumentalist and poet, but also, in his own self-effacing way, managed to move mountains and change the cultural landscape of the Pioneer Valley and beyond forever. His innovations, such as the establishment of the Jazz and Afro American music program and Jazz in July at The University of Massachusetts, are part of this legacy, as were the presence at UMass of such important musicians as Dr. Yusef Lateef, Horace Boyer, Jeff Holmes, Archie Shepp, Sheila Jordan and Max Roach among so many others. The artistic accomplishments and cultural contributions of his students stretch across the world."
In addition to his legacy as a successful musician and educator, his lasting memory is one full of fondness and love. He carried himself with an air of kindness that made everyone want to stop and listen to what he had to say.
David Picchi—bassist, educator, and director of the Jazz in July program at UMass--remembers when Dr. Tillis took the stage at the 25th UMass Saxophone Symposium to talk about his time at UMass. He recalls how, “...it was not only great to listen to him, but it was astounding to look around and see so many of his past students. All of us having come up under him, having received his help, or his guidance, and enjoying how he paved the way for us. The room was totally quiet in reverence for Dr. Tillis. It was a really impactful moment for me and I will never forget it.”
Outside of his role at UMass, Dr. Tillis was no stranger to greater change. He helped to establish jazz programs in South Africa at the University of Fort Hare and in Thailand at Chulalongkorn University. Upon retirement, the W.E.B. Du Bois library created an archive on Dr. Tillis’ life with documents, drafts of poems, compositions, and recordings; all which help to tell the story of his life.
Shawn Farley, marketing director of the UMass Fine Arts Center, remembers Dr. Tillis, who hired her at the Fine Arts Center in 1987, “Dr. Tillis was nothing but kind, just, compassionate, generous with his time, and the best teacher in terms of how to solve problems, to trust in myself and that no matter what you do, remember that you are part of the bigger world. His strength of character and commitment to stand up for what's right, no matter what it may cost him, made such an impression on me. I will be forever grateful to have worked with him for the last ten years of his tenure.”
Even though he is gone, he will not be forgotten. Creating numerous new programs at UMass—such as Jazz in July, the Jazz and Afro-American Music Studies program, the New WORLD Theater, and the Asian Arts and Culture Program—enriched the lives of numerous musicians, and provided a solid foundation for the next generation of jazz performers to build their skills. Students and colleagues alike remember dedication to building this program, and those that have never met him still benefit from his endeavors. His legacy lives on in their lives.
Dr. Willie Hill—retired director of the UMass Fine Arts Center and a longtime student, colleague, and friend of Dr. Tillis—reflected, “If I could say anything to him, I would tell him that I did the best that I could with the resources I had to further carry his legacy forever...making sure we have the necessary programs in place that he could be proud of...all of those individuals we've brought on board to continue the agenda we set forth at the Fine Arts Center. I know when I retired, the Fine Arts Center was in great shape. If I could give one message to him, it would be that he would love what we've done now.”
By Genevieve Rose, bassist and music educator
Dr. Frederick Tillis was an incredibly kind, supportive, and genuinely caring individual. A dedicated supporter of the arts, he was also an amazingly talented saxophonist, composer, poet, and inspiring jazz educator.
I first met Dr. Tillis 25+ years ago when he was a guest presenter for the AAIMS Program at the Community Music School of Springfield. He invited students to play a jazz tune with him, and I eagerly volunteered, as he made us feel comfortable with his friendly and welcoming demeanor. Since then, he has been one of the pivotal people in helping make my life today of teaching and playing possible. Dr. Tillis encouraged me to attend both the Jazz in July Program and UMass Amherst. He helped facilitate my studies there by generously providing scholarship opportunities for financially disadvantaged students to be able to afford a college education.
Throughout the years Dr. Tillis continued his amazing legacy of enduring advocacy for the arts, both through his affiliation and administration of the UMass Fine Arts Center, and through the Jazz in July program. Key components of his educational philosophy were to support diversity, and bridge experienced musicians with learners. Dr. Tillis personally helped me gain experience by including me on his Portraits From Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess recording, as well as a performance trip overseas to Greece and Turkey. He helped make it possible for me to join the Jazz in July faculty as a house rhythm section bassist for the vocalists. For many years I have enjoyed observing him perform on stage, as well as seeing him in the audience showing support for the musicians. He was always in good spirits, and had thoughtful and encouraging things to say. I feel very grateful to Dr. Tillis for being such an important part of my life, and I will miss him greatly!
Genevieve Rose with Dr. Fred Tillis and Sheila Jordan (left) and with Carlos Bermudo (right) at Dr. Tillis' retirement party in 1997. Photos by Ed Cohen
by royal hartigan and weihua zhang
royal hartigan was a student of fred tillis in the 1970's
dr. tillis gave me my life back when i doubted everything after returning from two years in the peace corps philippines, seeing the third world devastation and hopelessness of most of the planet's peoples. he helped me believe in myself and was like a second father, opening me to the depth and spirituality of african american culture and music. my wife, weihua zhang was introduced to this great tradition via the jazz in july program he created.
he has changed the lives of thousands of people and will forever be in our hearts, our music, and our lives. all those whom i have taught over 35 years have received dr. tillis' influence.
here is a poem for fred –
HOPI PRAYER FROM OUR ANCESTORS, FOR OUR ANCESTORS
words from the hopi people of southwest native america and royal hartigan
for my teacher, friend, and inspiration, dr. frederick tillis
do not stand at my grave and weep, i am not there i do not sleep
i am a thousand iowa winter winds that blow, i am the diamond glints on snow
i am the summer’s sun on texas’ ripened grain, i am the gentle autumn’s rain
i am massachusetts harvest leaves of red and orange and gold, i am the life force of all beings, great and small, fleeting and eternal, young and old
i am new england mountain meadows of brown and tan and green, i am the inner secret shadow spirits of all things, visible and unseen
i am the dawning dew in may’s blooming mist, i am the heartbeat of your dreams kissed
i am the sounds of music, dance, and song, from up on high, i am the clouds in an endless sky
when you awaken in the morning’s quiet hush, i am the swift uplifting rush of birds in circled flight
i am the soft stars that shine on a moonlit night
so do not stand at my grave and cry, i am not there, i did not die
and as before, fred, wherever you go we are with you near or far, and wherever we walk on the paths of this long cold night of life without you, you are right here with us, inside our hearts
a mirror for each other’s souls through time and space we are one, and someday yet again we will be whole as we awaken together in the evening’s midnight sun
as we awaken together in the evening’s midnight sun
and we’ll dance with spirits deep, sing the whole way through,
we’ll laugh at life’s old ills, and to each other be true, as we awaken together in the evening’s midnight sun
in the evening’s midnight sun
we are one
we are one
we are one
with you in our hearts, fred,
in spirit and music,
royal hartigan and weihua zhang
north dartmouth, mass
fred tillis with royal hartigan and weihua zhang, and pam and ester bedford in 2019