He was born January 10, 1926 in Unicoi County to Jessee Francis and Mamie Higgins Tilson. By 1930 the family moved to Washington County. Following graduation from Washington College Academy in 1944, Jewell worked on the family farm for two years while teaching at Washington College Academy and studying voice from Rhea Hunter.
After finishing his degree in Choral studies at East Tennessee State University, Mr. Tilson was “talked into” teaching band by former Elizabethton High School band director, Mel Kelly. Mr. Tilson began his teaching career at Elizabethton Junior High School and then taught at Washington College Academy, Elizabethton High School, Chattanooga City High School, Dobyns-Bennett High School and John Sevier Middle School.
Mr. Tilson’s bands were noted for outstanding concert and marching performances, receiving numerous superior ratings in competition. His bands from Chattanooga and Kingsport won first place four times at the Contest of Champions held at Middle Tennessee State University. The Dobyns-Bennett High School Band became one of the first high school bands in the state of Tennessee to travel internationally. Under his tutelage, Dobyns-Bennett received the Minister of Education Award for Musical Performance at the International Band Festival in Vienna, Austria in 1972. In addition, the Dobyns-Bennett band travel to Spain during the 1970’s and enjoyed a European tour in 1980.
He served as clinician and judge at musical competitions throughout the south both during his teaching career and after his retirement. He served as President of the Tennessee Bandmasters Association and held membership in the East Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association, National Band Association and Music Educators National Conference. Mr. Tilson was also a member of Phi Beta Mu.
Mr. Tilson’s passion for music resulted in a plethora of opportunities in church music and civic music both as leader and participant, including the Kingsport Community Band, the First Presbyterian Choir, and the Symphony of the Mountains Chorus.
Well into his later years, Mr. Tilson was well respected by music educators and former students alike. He very much enjoyed the students who visited his home, especially hearing from the ones who were still involved in music. In 2006, he was inducted into the Tennessee Bandmasters Hall of Fame.
In addition to his parents he was preceded in death by his nine siblings: Evelyn Tilson McCracken, Dortha Tilson Garber, Della Tilson, Forrest Tilson, Jessee Dwight Tilson, Francis Vowe Tilson, Kathleen Tilson Usary, William Tilson, and Joy Tilson Hensley. His son, Dwight Allen Tilson also preceded him in death.
He is survived by his loving wife, Koleta Baker Tilson; daughter Debra Tilson Gill (Charles) of Easley, South Carolina, son John Steven Tilson (Kathryn) of Knoxville; granddaughters Ashley Tilson Gill (Jason) and Laura Gill Spearman (Chad); grandson Alexander Martyn Tilson; great-grandchildren Levi Branham Gill, Charles Leland Gill, Reed Gardner Spearman and Tilson Grey Spearman.
The family will receive friends on Saturday, June 16, from 5-7pm at Hamlett-Dotson funeral home in Kingsport, followed by a memorial service on Sunday, June 17 at 1:30 pm at First Presbyterian Church in Kingsport. Interment at East Lawn Cemetery will follow the service on Sunday.