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
a poem for fred tillis
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
By Allen Davis
Dr. Frederick Tillis (1930 - 2020) was a composer, saxophonist, poet and Director of the UMass Fine Arts Center from 1978 to 1997. Allen Davis, an Advisor to the Northampton Jazz Festival and founding patron of the Davis Financial Group Jazz Artists in the Schools Program at JFK Middle School, has known Fred Tillis for nearly 50 years beginning as a staff member at the Orchard Hill Residential College in the 70's. Davis shares his remembrances of the "quiet" leadership and support of Dr. Fred Tillis in this remembrance.
I first met Dr. Fred Tillis while working as a staff member at Orchard Hill Residential College in the early 1970’s. He was one of the faculty sponsors of our efforts to create in the Residential College setting learning experiences where students lived that drew from many cultural influences and sources – some of which had not yet found their way into mainstream curricula. Fred was a tower of support for us as we launched our series of concerts and workshops focused on African American music, a focal point in conjunction with Afro Am and other departments, for some of our courses and programs.
Over a number of years Fred was a crucial bridge for us, sometimes in concert with members of the new W.E.B. DuBois Dept. of African American Studies, between the community-based music series we produced, and the academy. He often introduced concerts we produced, and often helped us raise institutional funds for the self-financed productions we hosted. We brought these and other artists to campus while Fred quietly supported and promoted our efforts: Jimmy Garrison, Charles McPherson, Andy McGee, Ray Santisi, Webster Lewis, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Michael White, Barry Harris, Reggie Workman, Alan Dawson, Sonny Stitt, Keith Jarret, Gary Burton, Larry Coryell, Rene McLean and Steve Turre (whom he personally mentored as they became students at UWW), and the unbelievable, unforgettable weekend that featured Eubie Blake.
Emphasis here for me must be on the word “quiet” – Fred was always content to do this important work out of the spotlight, always supporting our efforts, stretching the boundaries of the institution in ways we knew were not always supported by mainstream leadership at the Department or College level. We all know and have celebrated Fred’s crucial work in establishing the Jazz program within the Music Department, and creating comfortable homes for Dr. Billy Taylor, and of course for Professor Max Roach, for whom Fred was a tireless advocate. From what I understand, his work within the Music Dept. was not without struggle and setbacks, and there are those who believe Fred never got proper credit for redirecting the mainstream that he deserved. (I believe he himself might have felt that way, in the most private way.) I and many others who knew him and the work he did always considered him to be a quiet warrior, a great educator, and a hero.
On a personal note, during my years at Orchard Hill I came to fantasize about playing the bass – Reggie Workman, whom we had engaged to do a course at Orchard Hill on the Black Music scene in New York, had something to do with that! I shared that thought with Fred, and that very day he took me down to the depths of the Music Department to the musical instrument cage, found a playable double bass for me to borrow, and had me contact Prof. Dave Neubert, who was the Bass specialist at the Music Dept. at the time, and arrange for lessons. I was blown away by his support, generosity, and encouragement. Eventually I went on to become a committed “community musician,” playing in the UMass Symphony Orchestra, the Pioneer Valley Symphony for 25 years, and for many, many community productions and events. I even have managed to keep up, barely, with some accomplished jazz players over the years. I think of Fred almost every time I pick up my bass! That “gift” changed my life, and I will never forget it.
Rest in Peace, dear friend and mentor.