Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Work of Frederick C. Tillis leaves a lasting impression at UMass

Tillis provided opportunities for students to branch out and experience new genres of music
Maya Geer / Daily Collegian

Dr. Frederick Tillis started working at the University of Massachusetts in 1970 and in his time at UMass, shaped and progressed musical studies.

Tillis was the director of the Fine Arts Center for almost 20 years and started programs such as the jazz program, the Afro-American music studies program and the Jazz in July summer music program that allows students to come and learn from jazz greats over the summer.

He was born in Galveston, Texas, and started playing jazz by focusing on trumpet and saxophone, his daughter Pamela Tillis explained.

“He started playing professionally at the age of 12. His nickname was ‘Baby Tillis’ because he was a kid playing with much older musicians in their 40s,” she said.

After that, Tillis served as a band director for the Air Force during the Korean War. “I always felt that he had that intellect to be able to make things happen even though circumstances, in kind of an honest way, were against Black society and Black men,” Tillis said.

Tillis would go on to work in the Grambling State music department, and would become the chair of the music department at Kentucky State University before coming to UMass.

His work building the jazz program received resistance initially, his daughter explained, but “this is an American cultural tradition that needs to be taken seriously and treated seriously,” she said.

Jamilla Deria, the executive director for the Fine Arts Center, said that the Center has been a national leader as an inclusive presenter, and that Tillis helped pave the way.

“Tillis was really committed on representing western European artforms and non-western art forms,” Deria said.

“He gave opportunities really early on to a young generation of people of color,” she added.

Tillis himself grew up during the time of segregation but “excelled,” his daughter said. “He was already a very notable composer, notable educator, notable performer, musician and administrator,” Tillis added.

This all allowed him to be very well-established, Tillis said, and that is part of why he “had such a long reach of success here.”

On the Office of Equity and Inclusion’s Black Excellence page, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy stated, “Dr. Fred Tillis was both an extraordinary artist and a leader in establishing many of the University’s landmark cultural programs.”

“Naming our premier performance hall in his memory is a richly deserved honor,” Subbaswamy continued.

In 2021, the 1,800-seat concert hall located in the Randolph W. Bromery Center for the Arts was named after Tillis, “a celebrated composer, poet, music educator, and arts administrator at the university,” a press release read.

Tillis passed away in 2020 at 90 years old in his home in Amherst. His works can be found at the W.E.B. Du Bois library and his influence has created a lasting effect on the music culture at UMass.

Sofi Shlepakov can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @SShlepakov.

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