Dr. Tillis was a proud son of Galveston, born January 5, 1930. His mother was Zelma Bernice Gardner and his stepfather was General Gardner. He was a graduate of the public Galveston schools including Central High School, the first high school created for African Americans in the state of Texas during segregation. His musical talents were recognized at a very early age by his mother and by his music teacher and mentor Mr. Fleming Smizer Huff. Mr. Huff played the trumpet and that inspired Dr. Tillis to learn the instrument. He performed in the high school band and with his mother’s permission, began to play jazz trumpet and eventually saxophone professionally at the age of 12 in local Galveston establishments such as Hotel Galvez. She knew Dr. Tillis would maintain his excellent academic record while encouraging him to gain experience as a performer. As most of the adult musicians were drafted in service during World War II, an opportunity was created and he came to be known on the circuit as Baby Tillis. He inherited his love of music from his mother who played piano.
While at Central, he became lifelong friends with the late Izola Ethel Fedford Collins. As the renowned Galveston historian, Ms. Collins championed Dr. Tillis for his impressive talents and legacy and she frequently performed his music. His family was very devoted to the Reedy Chapel Church and served as long time members and philanthropists of the congregation. Collins was the musician at Reedy and they had that love of music and faith in common.
Dr. Tillis enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas when he was only 16, beginning his teaching career while earning his bachelor’s degree. He was an honored member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity organization. Immediately upon graduating from Wiley in 1949 at the age of 19, he returned to teach at the college, embarking upon a long career in music education. Dr. Tillis received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa under Dr. Philip Bezanson in 1952. After a four-year stint in the United States Air Force, where he conducted the Air Force band, he then resumed teaching at Wiley and North Texas State before returning to the University of Iowa to receive his Ph.D. From 1964 to 1970, Dr. Tillis taught at Grambling University and Kentucky State University respectively. As a young professor, he played the clarinet, the viola, and the piano in addition to the trumpet and saxophone. He also continued directing marching bands and orchestras. He was recruited by Dr. Bezanson to teach full time at UMass Amherst in 1970.
While at UMass, Dr. Tillis founded numerous programs and courses of study that greatly enriched the cultural life of the campus and the surrounding community. In 1978, he was appointed the director of the Fine Arts Center and helped start some of the university’s most successful arts initiatives. He represented the UMass Music Department and the university as a cultural ambassador, performing locally, nationally and internationally to over 30 countries with students, alumni and faculty.
Dr. Tillis had served as University of Massachusetts music department faculty, associate provost, associate chancellor for equal opportunity and diversity and the Fine Arts Center director for nearly 20 years. His passion and commitment for the arts and arts education extended well beyond each university community where he taught, touching and enriching lives throughout the world.
A performer and composer of unusual breadth, Dr. Tillis’ work profoundly shaped the cultural and musical life of UMass Amherst, the Western Massachusetts communities, and far beyond. His work spans the jazz, European, and African-American spiritual traditions, and encompasses an expansive range of world cultural references with dynamic melodic and harmonic textures. His more than 100 compositions include works for piano and voice, orchestra and chorus, solo and chamber music. He authored the textbook entitled Jazz Theory and Improvisation and authored 15 books of poetry.
A recipient of numerous honors and awards, Dr. Tillis was an influential educator, helping to establish the jazz studies programs at both the University of Fort Hare, South Africa and the Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and serving on several cultural boards including the International Association of Jazz Educators and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and review committees at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Upon his retirement from UMass in 1997, Dr. Tillis was awarded the honorific title emeritus director of the Fine Arts Center. Even in retirement, he remained active and connected by performing, composing music, lecturing, and writing poetry. The W.E.B. Du Bois Library maintains the Frederick Tillis papers, which document his extraordinary career. For more information about his esteemed career, visit www.composers.com/frederick-tillis.
Dr. Tillis is pre-deceased by his parents, Zelma Bernice Gardner and General Gardner; his wife and partner of 66 years, Edna Louise; and is survived by his daughters Patricia and Pamela; son-in-law Paul Hammacott; nieces Edna Louise Richards, Janet Levingston-Williams Lawrence, and Glendra Gunishaw-Johnson; nephew Marshall Gunishaw III; longtime family friends Helen and James Smith, and several great nieces and nephews. Dr. Tillis was laid to rest at Wildwood Cemetery on Friday, May 8, 2020 in a private family service. A memorial page has been established online at www.fineartscenter.com/Tillis where people can visit to leave remembrances. The Tillis Family so warmly thanks all of Dr. Tillis’ legions of friends, colleagues, students, and admirers. We feel your outpouring of love and thank you so dearly for your kindnesses.