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.”