The Beat Goes On: UMass Amherst prepares a musical salute to the late Fred Tillis

  • The late Fred Tillis, left, and Jeff Holmes were friends and musical partners for years at UMass Amherst, and Holmes, director of the school’s Jazz and African American Music Studies program, has been champing at the bit to present a tribute to his musical mate. UMass Department of Music & Dance

  • Fred Tillis, second from left, with UMass-based musicians Max Roach, left, Horace Boyer and Salvatore Macchia, circa 1980s. UMass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • The late Fred Tillis, a huge musical presence at UMass Amherst from 1970 to 1997, will be celeberated at a Feb. 20 concert at the university. Photo by Ben Barnhart/courtesy Umass Dept. of Music & Dance

  • Guitarist and songwriter Bruce Cockburn will celebrate more than 50 years of music making at Northampton’s Academy of Music on Feb. 26. CONTRIBUTED/Ron Mertiny

  • The Ballroom Thieves play The Parlor Room in Northampton Feb. 25. Photo from Signature Sounds website

  • Musical and life partners David Wax and Suz Slezak bring their “Mexo-Americana” sound to The Parlor Room Feb. 26. Photo from David Wax Museum website

  • Angel Bat Dawid + Tha Brothahood come to the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence Feb. 19. Photo from Facebook

  • Chris Smither brings his blues-inflected songs from Amherst to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Feb. 26. Gazette file photo/Jess Fasano/

  • Indie-pop favorites Rubblebucket, seen playing in Turners Falls last October, play at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield on Feb. 24 and 25. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2022

When Fred Tillis died in May 2020 at the age of 90, the University of Massachusetts Amherst lost a seminal figure from the school’s arts programs: a former director of the Fine Arts Center, a founder of the school’s jazz program, a professor of music, and a noted composer and musician himself.

And for months now, COVID-19 has prevented the university from staging some kind of musical celebration to honor Tillis, who first came to campus in 1970 (though last fall the school did rename its main concert stage in the Fine Arts complex after him).

Now, though, the university’s Department of Music and Dance is pulling out the stops for Tillis in a Feb. 20 show, at 4 p.m. in the Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hall, that will features dozens of musicians — faculty, students and guest artists — performing his compositions as well as related music.

Student groups include the Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Graduate String Quartet, and guest artists feature the likes of composer and jazz bassist Avery Sharpe, a UMass grad. Faculty performers include Jeffrey Holmes, director of the school’s Jazz and African American Music Studies program and a good friend and former musical partner of Tillis. Some duos will also also be part of the concert.

“We’ve wanted to put something like this together for months, and now we’re finally ready, knock on wood, to pull it off,” Holmes said in recent interview. “It’s a bit of a scrapbook of all the different things Fred was able to bring to the university through his playing, his compositions, and his leadership.”

Indeed, admirers of Tillis say one of his key strengths was his ability to bring top-flight musical talent, such as jazz legends Max Roach and Billy Taylor, to UMass as faculty members and performers. He also was a cultural ambassador for the university, performing with other faculty members and musicians across the region and the country, as well as overseas.

Holmes noted that Tillis recruited him to UMass in 1980 to head the new Afro-American Music and Jazz Studies program, as it was called then, and the two quickly hit it off.

“I think part of our bond was that I played trumpet, and that had been his original instrument,” Holmes said. Tillis excelled, he said, especially on the soprano saxophone; the two played regularly for years as a duo, with Holmes on piano and Tillis on sax, and recorded two albums (and a third as members of another jazz ensemble).

Tillis was a prolific composer, Holmes said, and not just in jazz. His writing embraced elements of the blues, classical music, and in particular African-American spiritual music. “He infused so much of what he wrote with a real spiritual consciousness,” Holmes said. “He really covered a lot of ground.”

The two later got involved in starting the Jazz in July program at UMass, among other things, and contributed to each other’s classes with guest lectures. “We were joined at the hip for a lot of things,” Holmes said with a chuckle. “I’ll always be grateful Fred was part of my life.”

The Feb. 20 show, which is slated to run about 90 minutes, is free, but attendees must be masked and are required to present evidence of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test. The concert will also be livestreamed on the Music & Dance Department’s YouTube channel.


Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, whose first album came out in 1970, was all set to embark on a 50th anniversary tour two years ago — until he was pre-empted by a certain highly contagious virus. Now, after a number of postponements, the venerable Canadian-born artist is coming to Northampton’s Academy of Music Feb. 26 at 8 p.m.

Cockburn, now 76, has worn a number of hats over the years: musician, certainly, but also human rights activist and spiritual explorer. The versatile fingerstyle guitarist, who’s released 35 albums during his career, also wrote a memoir, “Rumours of Glory,” several years ago in which he recounted his experiences traveling to war-torn countries including Nicaragua and Iraq, jamming with musicians overseas, and working with organizations such as Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders.

For instance, a visit in the early 1980s to a camp of Guatemalan refugees on Mexico’s border — people who had fled attacks by Guatemala’s military during the country’s 36-year civil war — inspired one of his best-known songs, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

Over the years, Cockburn has won accolades for both his songwriting and his guitar playing — “His skill as a guitarist is such that even if he couldn’t write a tune, he’d be in demand as an instrumentalist,” writes Trouser Press — and in his Academy show he’ll be playing songs from all five decades of his career.


Rubblebucket, the indie pop band formed in 2008 by vocalist/saxophonist Kalmia Traver and trumpet player Alex Toth, had planned to do two shows at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield late last December. COVID shut things down then, but the band will give it another try at Hawks & Reed on Feb. 24 and 25 at 9 p.m.

A regular visitor to the Valley for years, Rubblebucket, with four albums to their credit, has earned high marks for their live shows, which have included plenty of art-pop flourishes and colorful stage sets. In 2019, Paste magazine called the group “a breath of fresh air” and declared them one of the top 20 live music acts of the decade. Now if only COVID will let them play.

More music on tap

The Parlor Room in Northampton is resuming shows, now that the cozy venue is preparing to offer some gigs that are part of Signature Sounds’ Back Porch Festival in early March. On Feb. 20, singer-songwriters Joe Purdy and Earl Buck will play at 7 p.m. On Feb. 25, The Ballroom Thieves, who mix folk, rock and soul, play at 7:30 p.m., and the “Mexo-Americana” band David Wax Museum plays Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

The Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence is celebrating Black History Month with a number of shows in February, including clarinetist, composer, pianist and vocalist Angel Bat Dawid on Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. Called “the city’s jazz musician of the year” by the Chicago Tribune in 2021, Dawid has a deep background in jazz and African American spirituals.

The Bombyx Center will also offer two shows Feb. 20 of contrasting styles: The Verona String Quartet plays music by Schubert, Bartók and Beethoven at a 3 p.m. show produced by Valley Classical Concerts, and blues singer Marcia Ball brings her rollicking piano styles to a 7:30 p.m. show.

Chris Smither, the classy singer-songwriter and fingerstyle guitarist, was scheduled to play Gateway City Arts in Holyoke last month, but COVID forced a postponement until Feb. 26, when the Amherst-based Smither brings his blues-flavored tunes to Gateway at 8 p.m.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.