Fred Tillis, Nov. 23, 1977
As a composer, performer, poet, educator, and arts administrator, Fred Tillis profoundly shaped the cultural and musical aspects of life at UMass Amherst for forty years from 1970-2010. Born in Galveston, Texas, in 1930, Tillis began to play jazz trumpet and saxophone before his teens. As a performer and composer of unusual breadth, his work spans both the jazz and European traditions, and he has written for piano and voice, orchestra, choral pieces, chamber music, and in the African American spiritual tradition, drawing upon a wide range of cultural references. Growing up in a segregated school system, Tillis enrolled in Wiley College—a college for African American students—when he was only 16, and graduated with his Bachelor’s at age 19. Immediately upon graduating from Wiley, he began to teach at the college, beginning a long career in music education. Following a year of teaching full-time at Wiley, Tills received his Master's from the University of Iowa under Phillip Bezanson in 1952. After a four-year hiatus serving in the Army Air Core—eventually serving as director of the Air Force band—Tillis then returned to teaching at Wiley and North Texas State for four years before returning to the University of Iowa to receive his PhD. From 1964 to 1970, Tillis taught at various universities until he was recruited by his former teacher Phillip Bezanson to come teach full time at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
While at UMass, Tillis founded numerous programs and courses of study that greatly enriched the life of music majors and the general student body at the University. In 1978, Tillis was appointed the Director of the Fine Arts Center and helped start some of the University’s most successful art initiatives, including the Afro American Music and Jazz program, the New World Theater, Augusta Savage Gallery, Asian Arts and Culture Program, and the Jazz in July teaching program. Tillis was a part of a generation of instructors and administrators of color—including Roberta Uno; Max Roach; and Chancellor Ralph Bromery—who helped bring non-traditional courses of study and programs to the University, greatly increasing the diversity of both its student body and curricula. Upon retirement from UMass in 1997, Tillis was appointed Emeritus Director of the Fine Arts Center and remains active as a musician and poet.
From the guide to the Frederick Tillis Papers FS 156., 1956-2010, (Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries)