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.