Tillis, Frederick 1930–
Frederick Tillis 1930–
Composer, poet, arts administrator, educator
Frederick Tillis is a leading black American composer, with a catalog of more than 125 compositions and commissions that span both the jazz and classical traditions. His compositions comprise of orchestral, jazz, instrumental, choral, chamber music, and vocal works, including “Freedom,” a choral work written in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, and “In the Spirit and the Flesh,” a 1985 work for orchestra, chorus, and jazz trio. A gifted and dedicated educator, as well as a poet and musician, Tillis spent a large part of his working life on the music department faculty of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and directing the University Fine Arts Center.
Tillis was born in Galveston, Texas, on January 5, 1930. His mother, Bernice, was just a teenager when he was born, and they spent the first years of his life living with his grandparents; Bernice married his stepfather, General Gardner, when Tillis was about three. He had very little to do with his natural father. “I owe everything to my mother,” Tillis recalled in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). “My father took no responsibility.” Bernice Gardner encouraged her son in both academic and musical endeavors. “My mother sang to me all the time and played piano,” Tillis told CBB. When he started George Washington Carver Elementary School, Bernice gave him a book to read about Carver’s achievements as a scientist, inventor, and educator.
At school, Tillis joined the drum and bugle corps. “Musical instruments fascinated me,” he told CBB. “I used to walk downtown and look at the musical instrument shop. I chose a bugle, which led eventually to trumpet in the 7th grade.” His first musical mentor was Fleming Hough, a gifted instrumentalist and the Central High band director.
Tillis grew up in what he described to CBB as a “rigidly segregated” Texas. Galveston at that time was Texas’s second largest city, known as Little New York, a busy port town thronged with sailors and soldiers. After the United States entered World War II, Tillis, who was only twelve years old, got his first professional jobs as a musician. Known as ‘Baby Tillis,’ he performed in Russell Lewis’s quartet at a serviceman’s dance club. Members of the local African Methodist Episcopal Church complained to his parents’ about Tillis’s late
At a Glance…
Born on January 5, 1930, in Galveston, TX; son of Bernice Gardner and General Gardner; married E. Louise; children: Patricia, Pamela. Education: Wiley College, BA, 1949; Univ of Iowa, MA, 1952, PhD, 1963. Military Service: US Air Force, 1952-56.
Career: Russell Lewis’ quartet and Fleming Hough’s big band, Galveston, performer, 1940s; Wiley College, instructor/director of instrumental music, 1949-51, assistant professor/chairman of the dept of music, 1956-61, associate prof/chairman of the dept of music, 1963-64; composer, 1952–; Grambling College, prof of music/head of theory dept, 1964-67; Kentucky State University, prof/head of the music dept, 1967-69; University of Massachusetts, associate prof of music, 1970-73, prof of music theory and composition/director of Afro American music & jazz program, 1973-97, director of University of Massachusetts jazz workshop, 1974-80, director of University Fine Arts Center, 1978-97, associate chancellor for affirmative action and equal opportunity, 1990-97, director emeritus of University Fine Arts Center, 1998; writer and poet, 1977–.
Selected memberships: ALANA Honor Society Board, 1994–; Academy of American Poets; American Composers Alliance; American Federation of Musicians; International Association of Jazz Educators; TransAfrica Forum; American Music Center; Massachusetts Music Educators Association.
Selected awards: Rockefeller Fund Grant for Development Composition, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts, Composers Grant, 1979; MA Cultural Council, Commonwealth Award in organizational leadership, 1997; Distinguished Achievement Award, Black Musicians Conference 1998; Recognition Award for 30 Years of Service, Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students (CCEBMS), 1998.
Address: Home —55 Grantwood Dr, Amherst, MA 01002.
hours at the club. “But my mother was supportive,” he told CBB. “She knew that I cared more about music than anything else.” Tillis also played in Hough’s big band along the Galveston boulevard. “We played for a percentage of the door. Sometimes the weather wasn’t good and there weren’t many people. On one occasion, after playing for two hours or so, we made a dime each—this bought three pork chops!”
At Hough’s suggestion, Tillis started playing the saxophone. Tillis told CBB, “Traditionally, you don’t cross brass and wind instruments in that way, but Huff told me that Benny Carter did it.” Tillis, a “record fanatic,” bought all the Carter records he could find and “started listening and copying. That’s how we learned jazz in those days—imitating the masters.” Armstrong was another important influence. “I bought every record he ever made, and copied them, even the mistakes,” he explained to CBB. “That’s how I learned the language of jazz … I was wanting all through high school to play in one of the three great swing bands—Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford or Count Basie.”
In 1946 Tillis won a music scholarship to Wiley College, the first historically Black college west of the Mississippi, becoming the first member of his family to get a college education. He graduated after just three years with a B.A., majoring in music, and immediately took over the job of college band director. He married fellow Wiley music student, Louise, when they were both twenty years old. Unable to find a post-graduate music program in segregated Texas that would accept him, Tillis moved north to the University of Iowa in 1951.
While a student at Iowa, Tillis volunteered for the Air Force at the beginning of the Korean War, though his entry into the services was delayed until he completed his master’s. “I decided to volunteer for the Air Force for four years rather than be drafted into army for two; segregation was far worse in armed services,” he told CBB. One of the few musicians with a masters degree, Tillis eventually found himself in a familiar role: director of the 3560th Air Force band, stationed in west Texas. He returned to teach at Wiley after leaving the airforce, but his wife persuaded him to take advantage of the GI Bill and return to college.
Tillis began his Ph.D. at North Texas State, but he soon decided to take up an invitation to return to Iowa. The University of Iowa’s musical program was competitive, as well as stimulating and diverse, and Iowa was a non-segregated state. His wife took a job in the Dean’s Office to help pay Tillis’ way through college. After he completed his Ph.D. in 1963, Tillis took a succession of academic jobs, as associate professor at Wiley College in 1963-64, professor of music at Grambling College from 1964 to 1967, and as head of the music department at Kentucky State University from 1967 to 1969.
By the age of twenty, Tillis was already composing music: his 1952 quartet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and cello was part of his M.A. thesis. Influenced at first by Schoenberg and the serialists, later by Bach, who “had a profound and enduring influence” on his work, and Russian composers like Prokofiev and Mussorgsky, he began to develop a distinct and personal style, drawing on diverse Eastern and Western musical traditions and exploring his own cultural and ethnic roots. His wide-ranging musical interests and intellectual curiosity are reflected in the melting pot of aural influences evident in his work, as well as its scope, from symphonic and large-scale choral works to instrumental inspired by negro spirituals to jazz-based compositions.
Since the early 1960s, Tillis’ output has been prolific, with over 125 works in his catalog. Landmark pieces include the 1968 work “Freedom,” written in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, and two symphonic works written for jazz percussionist Max Roach, “Ring Shout Concerto” and “A Festival Journey.” More than a third of Tillis’ work is vocal music, some of which he collected in 2002 in “Twelve Songs for Voice and Piano.”
His commissions include “A Symphony of Songs,” a work for choir and orchestra based on poems by Wallace Stevens, written for the Hartford Chorale in 1999, and “Concerto for Piano, (Jazz Trio) and Symphony Orchestra,” commissioned by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra to perform with the Billy Taylor Trio in 1979. “In the Spirit and the Flesh,” commissioned by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1985, is scored for large orchestra, chorus, and jazz trio and combines the Paul Dunbar poem, “Life,” with a traditional text, “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit.” It remains one of his most performed works.
His interest in the confluence of classical music with other artistic forms has given Tillis’ work a rich and distinct voice. American Record Guide, reviewing a 1996 New World recording of chamber works by Tillis, noted how the “familiar spiritual melody [of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’] is examined, altered, and expanded on until an entirely new musical experience is made” and suggested that, through the composer’s imaginative incorporation of texts and other sources, “these deep, extra-musical associations are molded into cogent, expressive musical statements.”
In 1970, Tillis and his family moved to Massachusetts, where he took up the position of associate professor of music at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Like many American composers, Tillis found financial security in academic life. “If I made my living off royalties from my music, we would be living in the poor house,” he told CBB. “Classical composers in this country aren’t well-known in the current culture, white or black.… Fame is not why I do it. I’ve been blessed and fortunate enough to make a decent living at a university, but I just wanted to make music. Bach didn’t get a lot of the jobs he wanted, but he didn’t stop writing.”
At the University of Massachusetts, Tillis was appointed professor of music theory and composition/director of Afro American music and the jazz program in 1973, and became the director of the University of Massachusetts’ jazz workshop the following year, a post he held until 1980. From 1978 until 1997, Tillis was director of the University’s Fine Arts Center, and from 1990 to 1997, he was also associate chancellor for affirmative action and equal opportunity. By the time he retired from university life in 1997, he held the prestigious positions of professor emeritus in the department of music and dance and director emeritus of the University Fine Arts Center.
Tillis made frequent trips overseas during his career, as a guest lecturer or to take up short-term musical residencies. As a saxophonist he toured Europe, Asia and the Pacific, performing with the Tillis-Holmes Jazz Duo (with his colleague, Jeff Holmes) and the Tradewinds Jazz Ensemble. His compositions have been featured on a number of record releases, from the 1970s to the 1990s, and he has also appeared as a performer on recordings with the Billy Taylor Trio and the Tillis-Holmes Jazz Duo.
Drawing on both European classical and American jazz traditions in his own work, Tillis became an advocate for broadening musical education within universities, advising his students to be conversant in both idioms. “I try to encourage students of improvisation or written composition to find their individual voice in expressing music,” he said on the University of Massachusetts’ website.
His strong commitment to music education extended to its role in the community beyond the academy or conservatory. As director of the Fine Arts Center in Amherst, Tillis introduced programs like the New World Theater, the Augusta Savage Gallery, an Asian dance and music program, and a summer jazz festival. He also helped develop a performing arts series, a concert series for children and a theater for avant-garde performance. In 1997 he received a Commonwealth Award for his work there. “I don’t believe in the ivory-tower philosophy of art,” he was quoted as saying in the Boston Herald in 1997. “If you don’t get with the people, what are you doing to preserve the vitality of art and culture?”
His recent compositions reflect that belief in the relevance of high art to real life. In 2002 Washington D.C.’s Howard University commissioned a work called “For the Victims and Survivors of September 11,” for narrator and jazz orchestra. Tillis continues to work on an ongoing series of Spiritual Fantasies, instrumental works he described to CBB as spirituals “with a contemporary context.… It’s part of my heritage, and it’s a legacy I want to leave, to reflect our culture.” In addition to his musical compositions, Tillis is the author of Jazz Theory and Improvisation and has written poetry for much of the last thirty years. His first collection of poems, In the Spirit and the Flesh, was published in 1985, and he has subsequently published a number of additional volumes of poetry.
Tillis has received numerous awards and citations for his work as a scholar, musician, composer and music educator, including a Rockefeller Fund Grant for composition in 1978 and a composer’s grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979. He is a member of a number of organizations, including the Academy of American Poets, the American Composers Alliance, the International Association of Jazz Educators, the TransAfrica Forum, and the United Negro College Fund. Since retiring as a professor, Tillis writes poetry and practices both the tenor and soprano saxophone every day. “You get engaged with sound,” he told CBB. “I’m still discovering who I am.”
“Freedom,” a Memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for Mixed Chorus, 1968.
“Ring Shout Concerto,” for Percussionist and Orchestra, written for Max Roach, 1974.
“Niger Symphony,” for Chamber Orchestra, 1975.
“Five Spirituals for Chorus and Brass Choir,” with text by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1976.
“Concerto for Piano and Jazz Orchestra,” 1977.
“Three Symphonic Spirituals for Orchestra,” 1978.
“Concerto for Piano, (Jazz Trio) and Symphony Orchestra,” 1979 (revised 1982).
“Tribute to Duke Ellington,” a suite for mixed chorus and jazz trio, 1980.
“In the Spirit and the Flesh,” for Orchestra and Mixed Chorus, 1985.
“Spiritual Fantasy No. 9 (Sympathy),” for mixed chorus and Brass Quintet, 1987.
“A Festival Journey,” for solo jazz percussionist and symphony orchestra, 1992.
“Four Poems for Orchestra 1,” 1996.
“Symphony of Songs,” from poems by Wallace Stevens, for chorus and orchestra, 1998.
“For Victims and Survivors of September 11,” for Jazz Orchestra and Narrator, poems by Frederick Tillis, 2002.
“Twelve Songs for Voice and Piano,” 2002.
Freedom, University of Massachusetts Chorale, Mark Records, 1970.
Fantasy on a theme by Julian Adderley, Howard University Jazz Ensemble, Mark Records, 1975.
The Music of Frederick Tillis, Vol. 1, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Serenus Corporation, 1979.
Contrasts and Diversions, Tillis-Holmes Jazz Duo, P & P Publications, 1987.
Orchestral Showpieces from Around the World (“Niger Symphony”), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Mastersound Records, 1991.
Among Friends, The Billy Taylor Trio and Fred Tillis, P & P Publications, 1992.
Freedom: The Music of Frederick Tillis, New World Records, 1996.
Festival Journey Concerto, Max Roach, the New Orchestra of Boston, P & P Records, 1998.
Portraits from Greshwin’s Porgy and Bess, Tillis-Holmes Duo and Friends, P & P Publications, 1999.
A Tribute to Duke Ellington (“Fantasy on Sunday In Egypt’s Land”), Howard University Jazz Ensemble, 1999.
Jazz Theory and Improvisation: A Manual of Keyboard, Instrumental (or vocal) and Aural Practice, Educational Sheet Music & Bo, 1977.
In the Spirit and the Flesh, E Publications, 1989.
Images of Mind and Heart, E Publications, 1991.
In Celebration, E Publications, 1993.
Of Moons, Moods, Myths, and the Muse, P & P Publications, 1994.
Harlem Echoes, P & P Publications, 1995.
Children’s Corner: From A to Z, P & P Publications, 1998.
Seasons, Symbols and Stones, P & P Publications, 1999.
Akiyoshidai Diary, P & P Publications, 2001.
Shattered Ghosts and Southern Winds, P & P Publications, 2002.
Bittersweet Harvests, P & P Publications, 2003.
Perkins Holly, Ellistine, Biographies of Black Composers and Songwriters, William. C. Brown, 1990.
American Record Guide, March-April 1997, pp. 304-5.
Boston Herald, March 2, 1997 p. 42.
“Frederick C. Tillis,” Biography Resource Center; www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 22, 2003).
“Frederick C. Tillis,” P&P Publications, www.fredericktillis.com (July 22, 2003).
“Jazz in July - Faculty Bios,” The University of Mas sachusetts, www.umass.edu/fac/jazz/bios (July 22, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through personal interviews with Contemporary Black Biography conducted in February, 2003.
—Paula J.K. Morris
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