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In concert led by UMass colleagues, 'always curious' Fred Tillis to be honored

In this file photo from November 5, 1997, Frederick C. Tillis stands outside the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. Tillis, the long-time director and faculty member, died May 3, 2020 at age 90.
File photo
The Republican / MassLive.com
In this file photo from November 5, 1997, Frederick C. Tillis stands outside the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center. Tillis, the long-time director and faculty member, died May 3, 2020 at age 90.

The legacy of a revered musician and faculty member at UMass Amherst will be celebrated this weekend, nearly two years after his death.

Fred Tillis wore many hats during a nearly four-decade long career at UMass. He served as longtime director of the fine arts center, where the concert hall was recently renamed in his honor. Tillis also helped found the university's jazz and African American music studies program, and recruited world-renowned artists to perform and teach on campus.

Jeff Holmes, who is now director of the program, recalled when he was first hired by Tillis in 1980.

Jeff Holmes: Fred told me he liked what he saw, he liked my writing. He told me that he understood that he and I would probably not always get to the same point in the same way, and he liked that because he felt as though it was important for there to be different viewpoints. And I still have vivid memories of him driving me out to look at apartments and telling me kind of the lay of the land about what he envisioned and and what he thought might be our paths together. And I'm so happy that I was able to collaborate with him for so many years in so many different ways.

Kari Njiiri: Would it be hyperbole to call Fred Tillis a Renaissance man?

No, I think you hit the nail on the head. He was someone that that truly enjoyed all types of music, regardless of people perhaps wanting him to be either a champion for one music or for another. He really did have a very large appetite for different types of music. He went around the world seeking out that music, probably much in the same way as Brother Yusuf [Lateef] did.

But Fred was also tied to academics and to education and to being someone, particularly as the director of the Fine Arts Center, making sure that people knew about a lot of other types of music. So he was in a place where he could allow people to appreciate that there wasn't just one type of music. His poetry, the spirituals that he set to different types of ensembles and put them into a number of his jazz pieces, his classical pieces, his ability to write music for people that he came in contact with. He wrote for Billy Taylor, he wrote for Max Roach. Sal Macchia, who's the current head of the music program, is going to be playing a piece on Sunday that Fred wrote for him specifically in 1980, and Sal had only been here a year.

So if you went over to his house, you saw that he had a very eclectic collection of very important art. Sometimes you wouldn't know just all the things that he knew about the world. He he was not one to always wear that out on his sleeve. But the more that you got to know him, you found out about all these areas of interest and the passion that he had for that.

Sunday's program will feature performances of his works. Was it difficult to choose what to feature?

He does have a large collection of works. Was it difficult? I embraced the challenge because I looked at it as almost like a scrapbook. I went back and I looked at some of the things, particularly some of his music that was written in the '80s and some of the pieces in the '90s. But I did go and look at his catalog of music to make sure that we represented a number of the areas in which he loved to compose. So we have the duo, the quintet, the large jazz ensemble situation. We have a graduate string quartet that's doing his setting of "Wade in the Water." We have a couple of vocal jazz pieces.

There are some pieces that people have not heard. My colleagues and I in the faculty quartet are going to play a piece entitled "Romanian Sketch" that Fred composed while we were in Romania in June of 1982. It hasn't been played in 40 years. So there are some things that I know that I have a personal tie to, and then there are things that I want to make sure that we show the breadth of his gifts to us.

He's been gone now almost two years. Do you recall the last time you saw him?

I do. The music department was doing a recital of his more classical works in celebration of his 90th birthday. And, as I recall, it was right before we went into remote learning in the spring semester of 2020, and he was passing through the hallways at the Department of Music and Dance, as he often would do, and there'd be a knock on my door, a very faint knock and it would be Fred. I said, "Hey, Fred, how's it going?" And he said, "Good to see you. What are you doing? And how's the family?" ... always asking about the family and very interested, always curious.

The curiosity — that was one thing that I remember about Fred — he was always curious about things. And you could see that, you know, it didn't matter how many years he had been here, he was curious about what was going on. And he found satisfaction in going to something and finding out what the new wave of students were doing or hearing something new. So there was nothing boring to him about music and its creation and hearing new people play that. That curiosity, that I feel as though he maintained to the end of his time with us here, is something that I'll always cherish.

I'm sure people will enjoy coming out and honoring Fred and and his music, and we're all thrilled to be able to to present this.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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