Remembering Mike Gillis

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Remembering Mike Gillis

Skipper Kripitz, Mike Gillis, and Bubba Lownotes at January 2014 Isle of Bones concert.

John Michael Gillis has passed. He now performs on a much bigger stage – you know they got a helluva band. We lost a lot of music in Key West in 2022 and none more impactful than Mike Gillis.

Mike Gillis posing with his Jazz buddies at what was then Kelley’s on Whitehead April 28, 2014.

I visited Mike a dozen or so times at his Kennedy Avenue apartment in the past few years. It was a sparsely furnished apartment with a big recliner chair in the middle of the room, a small television, a laptop, and boxes of files. It was hard to visit and not feel compassion, and a bit of sadness, for this world class musician that had performed for thousands in almost every famous venue one could imagine and had appeared on at least eight television shows.

Before vaccines, I hesitated visiting this 80-year-old high risk legend. We only spoke on the phone. He always had a project for me to help with. I digitally converted a beautiful recording of Mike and Louise Pearson and a few songs recorded with Gordy Michaels. Together, we discovered how difficult it was to post music files on Facebook. He would always have a printed story for me to take and read.

Mike had a resume a mile long – if interested, a few clips are posted on the Soul of Key West Facebook page. His resume listed a full page of major venues, another page of A-listers he performed with, and on and on. He was rightfully proud of his life’s work.

Mike Gillis always made it look so easy.

When I visited Mike, he was always busy listening to old music or trying to regain his chops, while recovering from recent back surgery. Mike had battled cancer five years earlier and won. He was hospitalized in Miami in intensive care in 2016. Good friend, Harry Schroeder visited him in Cedars of Lebanon and related his worry that we might not see Mike again. Mike defied the odds many times.

I first interviewed Mike Gillis in his favorite Chinese restaurant in the Winn Dixie shopping center. He was the most fun interview of my 140 interviews. He had been a professor at the University of Miami teaching young jazz musicians, and he would always offer ways to help me learn more about music and musicians. His knowledge and understanding of music was deep, and his ability to communicate was both intense and gratifying. I always enjoyed talking to Mike.

After I heard the news of his passing, I reread a few published stories Mike had copied for me. There was a very cool story by Edith Hamilton published in the Miami Herald’s “Jazz Review” section (probably the early 70s when Mike taught Jazz at UM). She spoke of hearing Mike’s beautiful music outdoors in a subtropical night in Coconut Grove at a venue called Tomato’s. Hamilton painted a scene of jazz notes floating in the gentle breeze under the trees, “with the moon taking a back seat.” In a direct quote, Hamilton describes “the Gillis group (quartet) hangs together with the ease of honey in a hive”.

Another article was in the Key West Citizen’s “What Is Hot” section, by Valerie Ridenour,, with a photo of Mike by my good friend Richard Weatherwax (probably early 80s). Ridenour describes a performance in a lovely upstairs room at Antonia’s. She states, “Mike …has gotten everything out of the song when it is finished…” She also quotes the prophetic last lyric of a jazz standard “When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all, then I will tell them, I remember you.”

Key Wester and then Citizen Reporter, Richard Hatch, wrote an article titled, “The Cream Rises to the Top”, about a wonderful gig with Mike Gillis and Louise Pearson (a vocalist described as a Brazilian Ella Fitzgerald), seven stories above Duval at “The Top” of the La Concha. Hatch reminisces of Gillis performing at the Pier House, Captain Hornblower’s, The Reach, and his long relationship with almost all the Motown artists.

There was a very cool 1992 Solaris Hill story, “Gillis is Back in Town”, by Christine Naughton. She takes great pain to describe the sublime performance of this world class guitarist playing a hollow-bodied Gibson. Naughton describes his improvisation as “sometimes opening gradually like flower petals, sometimes bursting out like sudden fireworks.”

Mike Gillis and Denis Hyland perform upstairs at Kelley’s on Jazz Night April of 2014.

Harry Schroeder also wrote two stories for Solaris Hill. One titled, “Great Jazz at Hickory House”, a former Stock Island house of jazz that Mike frequented, and “There Are Musicians and Then There Is Michael Gillis” – the title says it all. Harry was one of Mike’s best friends, and by no means objective. Harry recommended I interview Mike for my second volume of Soul of Key West book, and I’m glad he did.

Even though John Michael Gillis is gone from us, he is still alive in his own mystical way. His musical inspiration, to his many friends and students, lives on in their music. RB Tolar was inspired by Mike Gillis one day hearing guitar music coming from what is now Mary Ellen’s on Appelrouth. Initially, RB thought it was multiple guitarists. He couldn’t believe that one player, playing the rhythm, the melody, and the lead could sound so good.

Recently, I was enjoying a duet at the Little Room Jazz Club with Joe Dallas and RB Tolar and having a pleasant conversation about music with vocalist Carmen Rodriquez. As RB Tolar, playing a hollow-bodied Gibson, took off solo on an engaging Charlie Parker tune, Carmen stopped mid-conversation and said, “That reminds me of how Mike Gillis would play music.” It made me wonder how many times that must happen all over this nation, and probably parts of the world, when someone remembers Mike Gillis.

Jazz Night upstairs at Kelley’s “Live Jazz” with Mike Gillis, drummer Hal Howland, his personal protegé Rock Solomon vocals, Joe Dallas bass, George Helmut on baritone saxophone.




  • Joyce says:

    I am so very sorry to hear of Mike’s passing. God Bless 🙏🏻

  • Louisa Pulzer says:

    Wonderful article – thank you.
    I’m only sorry that so many people (and this includes me) who get to listen to the likes of Mike Gillis, and there are dozens of examples like him performing in Key West, don’t really appreciate who they are listening to. There are quite a few musicians in Key West who have an incredible background and no-one seems to know. I guess that is just the way life is sometimes.

  • Katy Waugh says:

    What a wonderful reminiscence and tribute to such a talented man. His story makes me wonder just how many incredibly talented artists are out there, flying under the radar, living quiet, humble, subdued lives, all the while making mind blowing and heart aching contributions to the music of our lives. Rest well and play for the Angels…

  • Eileen Sotet says:

    Thanks again Ralph for another informative & super interesting article of yet again another amazing artist!! Hope to see you & your wife at the next New Smyrna Beach Jazz Fest.

  • Gay Dougherty says:

    Beautiful write up of a Beautiful
    Man! Thank you!

  • Nancy Kistler says:

    His guitar playing was smooth as silk.

  • Beverly Ball says:

    Beautiful tribute to Mike Gillis. May he Rest In Peace. Your words are magic, making me realize there is so much more to each person than the little bit we see. Mike, the man and the musician, will live on in your tribute.

  • Gail Lima Richmond says:

    I am very sad to learn of Mike’s passing. Wow! What a wonderful summation of his musical life and career. We knew Mike for many years and performances; yet, I never knew all of these amazing details. He was a wonderful, humble and sweet man, which came through his music. I’ll always remember his gentleness and sweet smile…the kind that one wears doing what one loves most while sharing it with all privileged to hear that gift. I foresee a heavenly jam! God bless your soul, Mike.
    With Love & Peace,
    Gail Lima Richmond & the late Franko Richmond

  • annie says:

    Such a great tribute to a wonderful man and his music

    • Shirley newman says:

      I knew Mike when we were neighbors way back in the early 60’s,he would sit on
      his front porch almost everyday playing.Then he moves on going all over the country playing his music.Rest in peace my big brother that I never had.Only got to hear him 1 time in Miami,cause I wasn’t old enough to go to the clubs way back then

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