Frederick C. Tillis, Composer Who Straddled Genres, Dies at 90


Frederick C. Tillis, an American composer who straddled the worlds of jazz and classical music, died on May 3 at his home in Amherst, Mass. He was 90.

His daughter Pamela Tillis said the cause was complications of a hip operation that he underwent after a fall.

Professor Tillis — who spent much of his career at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, teaching composition and music theory — was known for creating and performing versatile works that spanned American jazz and European traditions.

“My influences and inspirations are all over the place,” he said in an interview for William C. Banfield’s book “Musical Landscapes in Color: Conversations with Black American Composers” (2003). “What is challenging for me to do is to combine seemingly disparate music traditions and idioms and still speak in a language that musicians and other listeners find interesting.”

Professor Tillis wrote more than 100 compositions, as well as 15 books of poetry and a textbook, “Jazz Theory and Improvisation” (1977). His work included compositions for piano, voice, orchestra, chorus and chamber ensembles. A frequent source of inspiration was African-American spirituals.

“Frederick Tillis’s ‘Spiritual Fantasy Suite’ has spirituals as a base, but its soprano and alto saxophones mixed with piano exude Middle Eastern melody with jazz,” Bernard Holland wrote in a 2006 review for The New York Times. “What anchors the piece is its eccentric meters and rhythm and the intricate imitative counterpoint.”

Frederick Charles Tillis was born on Jan. 5, 1930, in Galveston, Texas. He was raised by his mother, Zelma Bernice (Hubbard) Gardner, a domestic worker for a local family, and his stepfather, General Gardner, a contractor for the City of Galveston. He took his last name from the maternal side of his mother’s family.

His mother told him later in life that she had always wanted to teach. As an adult, Professor Tillis paid for her to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Texas Southern University in Houston. She taught sixth grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Galveston until her retirement.

Professor Tillis showed an early aptitude for music. At 12, he began playing trumpet and saxophone at local jazz clubs, where he was billed as “Baby Tillis.” He graduated from Galveston Central High School, where he was named a student instructor and assisted the director of the marching band.

He won a music scholarship to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, when he was 16 and had begun teaching in the music department by his senior year. After graduating at 19, he continued to teach at Wiley, embarking on a music education career of nearly 50 years.

Professor Tillis met Edna Louise Dillon, a fellow music student, at Wiley, and they married after her graduation in July 1950. They were together until her death in September 2013. In addition to his daughter Pamela, he is survived by another daughter, Patricia Tillis.

Professor Tillis received a master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1952. He returned there to earn his doctorate after spending four years in the Air Force, where he conducted the 509th Air Force Band.

He taught at colleges in Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky before being recruited to teach full time at Massachusetts in 1970. Appointed director of the school’s Fine Arts Center in 1978, he helped jump-start several university arts initiatives, including what became the Jazz and African-American Music Studies and the annual Jazz in July summer intensive programs.

After retiring in 1997, he continued writing poetry, composing and playing music professionally until a few years before his death.

Professor Tillis pushed for cultural diversity in the music world throughout his academic career.

“I don’t believe in the ivory-tower philosophy of art,” he said in 1997. “If you don’t get with the people, what are you doing to preserve the vitality of art and culture?”

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