Dr. Frederick C. Tillis

In Memory of Dr. Frederick C. Tillis | 1930-2020


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A composer, performer, poet, educator, and arts administrator, Dr. Frederick C. Tillis was one of the major influences on the cultural life at UMass Amherst for over forty years. 


It was Dr. Tillis that brought the Fine Arts Center to life as an organization, helping to jump start some of the most successful arts initiatives the university has seen, including the Afro American Music and Jazz program (through the Music Dept.), the New World Theater, Augusta Savage Gallery, Asian Arts and Culture Program, Jazz in July Summer Music Program, the Black Musicians Conference and of course, the popular Bright Moments Summer Concert Series.

He served as Director of the Fine Arts Center for twenty years building the arts organization into the Pioneer Valley’s largest and most comprehensive venue for the arts. By the time Tillis retired in 1997, he held the positions of Associate Vice Chancellor for Equal Opportunity and Diversity, professor emeritus in the Department of Music and Dance and director emeritus of the Fine Arts Center.

Dr. Tillis will always be held in high regard not only for his love of the arts but for his love of humanity. He was an icon. He touched countless number of lives, nationally as well as internationally—students, colleagues, musicians, artists, patrons. We quickly all became his friends, his family. He would give a reassuring smile, a simple hug, a few words of inspiration. His love for us was real and felt with each interaction.

His passing is a huge loss, but his legacy will continue to encourage and inspire us for many generations.  Thank you, Dr. Tillis! 

Read more at umass.edu
Read more from the UMass Department of Music & Dance
Read feature in the New York Times by Julia Carmel, June 17, 2020


Tree of Life

by Dr. Frederick C. Tillis, from “Breaking Dawn and Healing” 

        Like a cherry tree living on earth
    my fruits come in colors of the rainbow
        with roots nurtured in the fertile soil
    among hill, mountains, and meadows.
        Scorched land of cinders and ash
    do not sustain bitter flames of wrath.
  Time chokes the breath of bruising rash 
and allows the promise of a fragrant path.

       We are all beings of soul and flesh.
Neither species or gender, should surrender
        leaves, trees, and others as well
     live by chance, dreams, and myths.
Sacred and secular collide in heaven & hell.
     But bones and stones of ghost last
while fashions and families eventually pass.
     There is no greater love or treasure 
      than the gift of peace and measure 
          of all life and what it is worth
as it grows, dies, and again is given birth.       


Dr. Frederick C. Tillis, with friends and colleagues

This digital slide show celebrating the life and work of Dr. Tillis was created by Ed Cohen Photography.

At its annual Bezanson Legacy Concert in February 2020, the UMass Amherst Department of Music & Dance honored professor emeritus Frederick Tillis on his 90th birthday. Video courtesy of Pamela Tillis & Isaiah Alexander

Remembrances from Friends & Colleagues

Dr. Fred Tillis leaves an extraordinary legacy at UMass Amherst. He was a gentle soul who made me feel at once like we had known each other a long time. Fred was proud of the program he built at the Fine Arts Center and was devoted to its long-term viability—a strong advocate for the performing arts and the preservation of cultural heritage.
From UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

I did not have the opportunity to know Dr. Tillis well, but I've felt his indelible imprint in every facet of our work. From our very first meeting last summer to our many brief encounters at performances throughout the year, it was clear to me that the FAC was not just a place he worked, but was in fact a piece of him.
From Current FAC Director Jamilla Deria

He has meant so much to me since 1964 when I had the privilege of having him as my music theory and orchestra teacher at Grambling State University for two years. Dr. Tillis was a giant in the music and arts education arenas and a visionary arts administrator. He will be sorely missed for his unselfish contributions to our organization, by the FAC staff, advisory board, friends and UMass community at large.
From Dr. Willie Hill, former director of the Fine Arts Center and Tillis’ successor

The Department of Music and Dance mourns the loss of our friend and colleague Dr. Frederick Tillis – a gifted composer and performer, talented poet and a formidable administrator. I first met Fred in 1978, and have many wonderful memories of touring Russia with him, playing local jazz clubs, and presenting concerts of new music in a variety of venues. He was then, as he remained for the rest of his life, a kind, caring and knowledgeable human being. He will be sorely missed. From Salvatore Macchia, Department of Music and Dance Chair

I loved Fred Tillis. The breadth of his knowledge and the height of his achievement are indeed remarkable; but what I also learned from him over the years was that I was blessed to be in his presence and that neither knowledge nor achievement is worth much if not placed in the service of humanity. We are saying goodbye to this giant of a man at a time when his influence is most needed in our country and in the world. But we will always have his example. From Esther Terry, Emeritus Faculty and Chair of Afro-American Studies

Fred Tillis was my neighbor, but for a few years I didn't know who he was, only that he was so friendly in a way that others neighbors weren't. He used to walk around a lot near my house including in the old cemetery and he always said hello with a wonderful smile. Most people around here don't do that, so he stood out. What a beautiful human being. So glad that he was hired at UMass because it brought him to the neighborhood!
-From Isabel Espinal
Dr. Tillis was a legend, and a friend.  One of my first memories of a personal interaction with Dr. Tillis was when he caught me at the bottom of a staircase at the FAC concert hall; I had tripped on my coat which was too long. He softened my fall, but I still landed on the floor. A crowd gasped. I did not get hurt, and then looked up at Fred and said, "It was just seeing you here tonight that did this!" Then everyone softened with smiles. Another time I sketched him at his Augusta Savage Gallery performance, and then showed him the drawing which he asked to keep. I remember he said, "You got me!" We were always happy to engage in conversation whenever we met again; I considered him to be someone who always wanted to see me do well. He was my friend. I was his friend. That relationship will continue through space and time.
-From Lorna Ritz
I loved Dr. Tillis like a father. He taught me everything I know as a musician when I was his student at Wiley College, and he was an extraordinary resource when I had the honor of serving as Interim Chancellor of UMass Amherst. I will miss him.
-From Thomas W. Cole, Jr.
I love Fred tillis. And always will. What a great and visionary soul. God bless you !!!! -From John Simpson
As stated in the beautiful in memoriam statement by the FAC, Fred Tillis gave much to the Fine Arts Center and to the world of music, but, above all else, he was a magnificent human being. Though I only knew Fred over the years as an acquaintance, when I think of his warm, gentle face and way of being, I know that I will smile and be a kinder person because of his presence on this earth.
With my condolences to Fred's family and his circle of loved ones
-From Tanyss Martula
RIP Bro. Tillis! Friendship Is Essential To The Soul. Omega Psi Phi till the day we die!!!! Safe travels my brother.
Bro. D Thomas
I worked for Dr. Tillis when he ran EOD. HE WAS A GENTLE SOUL! A GREAT MAN! AN EXCELLENT ROLE MODEL! I am very sorry for your loss.
-From Dr. Madeline L. Peters
I've been a part of the FAC "family" for over 30 years through my wife Shawn Farley, and had the pleasure of many social and other encounters with Dr. Tillis. His obvious talents aside, what I will remember most about Fred is the warmth and comfort he radiated all the time. It was difficult to feel any less than "in good spirits" when you were in his company. What a lovely man. I will miss him. -From David Mintz
I received an email from Dr Tillis' daughter Pam about my mentor, teacher and friend. I hadn't stopped by to see him since we celebrated his work at Old Chapel in March 2019. Over the years I had stayed in touch and provided assistance with his beloved "Jazz in July" program. I have known, studied and worked with Dr Tillis since 1972 when he offered me a Graduate Teaching Fellowship at UMass, Amherst . It is just impossible to highlight all that I have experienced with the Professor over the past 38 years. His legacy will live on through his life experience with students, colleagues, fans an friends. I am sure that he is now with his cherished wife Louise and for Pat and Pam, I love you.
-From Jake Epstein
Professor Fred Tillis was truly special, not only as a brilliant educator and creative musician, composer, and poet, but also as our neighbor. I would enjoy my conversations with him so much, whether next to his mailbox or on his walks and even over his home. Seeing him and his smile always made my day. Now I am rereading the book of his poems, "Beginning again," that he gave me. His love for his family was legendary and that for his friends. Professor Tillis, you will always be part of our neighborhood in Amherst and your tremendous legacy at UMass Amherst will live on. May you rest in peace.
-From Dr. Anna Nagurney
Dr. Tillis was my first hero in music.

When I arrived as a freshman at UMass in 1997 I had no experience as a musician. I’ll never forget the first day walking into his Tuesday morning Music history lecture in African-American music which he co-taught with Dr. Horace Boyer. This class defined my perspective on music and set me on the trajectory to becoming a musician. I was changed forever by their lecture on Billie Holiday’s classic interpretation of “Strange Fruit.”

I was fortunate to also encounter him in his role as Director of the Fine Arts Center. I was excited to be hired as a work-study student in a department under his leadership. I worked with him closely as an administrator for Jazz in July and the experience inspired me to pursue my degree in Arts Administration. I was always inspired to be in his presence and always appreciated his smile, kind words, and enthusiasm for the work of his students.

On top of all that he possessed the most beautiful tone I have ever heard on the curved soprano saxophone. He was an inspired instrumentalist and a gifted composer. I can’t say enough about his impact on my life and I’m glad to know his memory will live on.

Thank you,
Charlie Apicella
All my thoughts and prayers are with you In these sad days. I always will remember you as the best boss, teacher, person and friend. I send my love to you. -From Carlos G. Bermudo
Pat I'm so sorry for your loss. I will keep you and your family in my prayers. -From Donna Weston
I am a former student of Dr. Tillis from his tenure at Wiley College in Marshall, TX. I could not have asked for a better teacher, mentor or role model than Dr. Tillis. He provided us with some very rich experiences. The most memorable experiences was as a member of the Wiley Collegians from 1956 to 1959. I could not have gone to a better school or studied. with a better music educator than Dr. Tillis, and for that I thank God.
-From Lorenzo Williams (Class of '59, Wiley College)
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. he has changed the lives of thousands of people and will forever be in my heart, my music, and my life. all those whom i have taught over 35 years have received dr. tilliis' influence. here is a poem for fred -

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
all one all
one all
beyond forever
with you in our hearts, fred,

-From Royal Hartigan
I was honored to have been mentored by an amazing musician who also was an even greater person.
Fred Irby,III
Professor of Music
Howard University, Washington, DC
The world suffered a sad loss. Dr Frederick C Tillis was a professor of music at the UMass music department. But, he wasn’t just a professor. He was a jazz saxophonist. He was a composer. He was a poet. He was the Vice Chancellor for Affirmative Action. He was the Director of the Fine Arts Center. He was also on the search committee which brought a crazed redhead of a band director named George Parks to UMass.

But for me, he was my boss when I worked at Affirmative Action and FAC, my colleague in the music department, my Honorary Little Sister for Tau Beta Sigma, my mentor, and a dear friend. Fred lived a wonderful life, and I just hope I can carry on his legacy - just by keeping on and carrying him in my heart. Rest well, my friend.
From Mikhaela (Mikki) Houston
My pleasant remembrances of Dr.Fred Tillis go back to the late 1970's when I joined the UMass faculty. At that time I had the honor to first meet the famed drummer Max Roach (and to play some jazz piano with his students). Later I met Dr.Tillis, and attended his concert with Max, Dr.Billy Taylor and Archie Shepp. I knew then, immediately,the stature of Fred as an accomplished musician. Much to my delight however I learned over the years of his stature as a good, decent, kind human being, a man who exhibited strength not by might, but by good character. A great man he is, Dr.Tillis,with a great smile to light our way, and to teach us the gift of humility.
-From Dr.Floyd L.Williams
When I was a student at UMASS in the early 90s, Dr. Tillis was a great inspiration to me. As I advanced in my career, he was very kind and supportive when I saw him at various conferences. A number of years ago, I wrote to him because I had lost my cassette copy of his solo saxophone album. He quickly wrote back to me and sent a new copy as a gift. He was, of course, an artist and a scholar, but he was also a gentlemen. I am grateful to have known him.
-From David Pope, Prof. of Saxophone, James Madison University  
I was lucky enough to be able to sing in the University Chorale at a time when Dr. Tillis played with us from time to time. He was a brilliant musician and a kind and gentle man. -From MaryAnn Ryan
Almost 10 years ago, Dr. Tillis' Spiritual Fantasy No. 8 was on the same program as my NYC premiere as a composer. The night was full of wonderful and new music. We were all lucky enough to have Dr. Tillis there that night, and I was able to meet him after the concert. He was so kind, and his piece was so beautiful. I went and listened to every single piece I could of his, and I also looked up and checked out every score that was available to me locally. I'm so sad to hear of his passing. Out of every living musician I've had a chance to encounter, both his music and kindness left the largest impact on me will not be forgotten.
From Corbin Hines
Dr. Tillis was always a quietly challenging and supportive teacher. It was a great pleasure to be a member of his classes and to simply spend time with him listening to his ideas and participating in conversation. I well recall dropping by his "portable office" unannounced and being welcomed in to spend some time talking about music. He may not have realized it, but he has had a profound effect on my life personally and professionally. May he rest in peace.
From Leon Janikian

I succeeded Fred as Chair of the Department of Music at Kentucky State University. As a novice administrator, I needed a lot of advice and insight into the work of a Department of Music Chair. Fred was patient with me and shared his immense knowledge on administering a Music Department. He had begun working toward full accreditation for the Department in the National Association of Schools of Music, Using the foundation that he had laid, I was able to lead the Department to Accreditation. Fred was gentle, very bright, personable, and an excellent musician, He made outstanding contributions to academic music composition, jazz, performance, and teaching. He shall be deeply missed. 
From Warren C. Swindell