In Memoriam

Frank Tirro, former School of Music dean and pioneering jazz historian

Frank Pascale Tirro, dean of the Yale School of Music from 1980 to 1989, passed away after a long illness on March 28.
Frank Pascale Tirro
Frank Pascale Tirro

Frank Pascale Tirro, dean of the Yale School of Music from 1980 to 1989, passed away after a long illness on March 28.

Tirro is remembered for his pathbreaking writings on music, education, and racism in America; his landmark contributions to our understanding of the history of jazz; his studies of late medieval and renaissance music; and his considerable administrative accomplishments. He was also an ASCAP award-winning composer and a highly respected professional clarinetist and saxophone player.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Tirro earned his Bachelor of Music from the University of Nebraska in 1960 and received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from that institution in 2006. He earned his M.M. from Northwestern University in 1961 and his Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Chicago in 1974. While still a graduate student, he began his distinguished administrative career by establishing and then chairing the music program for the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School from 1963 to 1970. The next year he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Villa I Tatti for advanced research into Italian Renaissance music. After earning his doctorate, a one-year term as visiting lecturer at the University of Kansas led to his appointment on the faculty of Duke University, where he served as chair of the Music Department from 1974 to 1980. He began his tenure as dean of the Yale School of Music in 1980, a post which he held for eight years. He continued to teach, perform, and chair the Doctor of Musical Arts Committee at Yale until his retirement in 2010.

Among Tirro’s most important contributions to Renaissance studies is his investigation of the sources in the archive of San Petrino in his beloved city of Bologna (Stuttgardt, 1986). With his article “The Silent Theme Tradition in Jazz” (The Musical Quarterly, 1967) he became a pioneer in bringing the study of jazz into mainstream musicology. Jazz was his passion, and he dedicated the remainder of his life to leveling barriers and raising up the contributions of Black musicians to this uniquely American genre, born out of their experiences as a gift to all. His “Jazz: A History” (1977 and 1993) became a foundational text in the field and was translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish. This was followed by “Living with Jazz” (1996), “The Birth of the Cool: Miles Davis and His Associates” (2009) and “With Trumpet and Bible: The Illustrated Life of James Hembray Wilson” (2012).

 Tirro also co-authored multiple editions of the textbook “Humanities: Cultural Roots and Continuities”contributed to 38 biographies of jazz greats for the World Book Encyclopedia; and authored 8 entries on medieval and renaissance composers for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musiciansas well as dozens of articles on jazz, late medieval music, and other facets of music history throughout his career. In addition, his compositions earned numerous prizes including multiple ASCAP Standard Composers Awards, which he received for the first time in 1970. His submission for the Nebraska state anthem, “Nebraska,” used Native American themes and celebrated Nebraska’s rich agricultural heritage.

Tirro’s career was characterized by his remarkable care for his colleagues and his natural humility,” said Paul Hawkshaw, professor emeritus of music at Yale. “Though he walked and played with giants like Benny Goodman, Henny Youngman, Dizzy Gillespie, and scores of big band jazz legends, he always took a back seat to let others’ gifts shine. As dean, he led the Yale School of Music through one of the most difficult periods in its history with grace and a relentless dedication to the best interests of its faculty and students.”

Tirro is survived by his wife of 60 years, Charlene (Whitney) Tirro, a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren. 

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