Trombonist Billy Gauthier Started a Jazz Band in 1978.
He — and it — haven’t stopped since.
By Ross Boissoneau | April 13, 2019
Over the course of its 40 years of existence, Northwestern Michigan College’s Big Band has seen conductors come and go (and sometimes come again). Scores of musicians have passed through its ranks. It’s even spawned another big band, while performing music by a host of the genre’s most acclaimed writers and arrangers.
But from its first concert in 1979 to the upcoming performance April 20 at Milliken Auditorium, there’s been one constant: trombonist Billy Gauthier. Not only was Gauthier there at the beginning, he’s largely responsible for it coming into existence in the first place. And for that, he credits his love of music.
“I transferred to Traverse City High School [now Traverse City Central] my senior year from Green Bay,” said the lead trombonist for the NMC Big Band. He saw the college just over the fence and wondered if it had a jazz music program he could join.
He ended up in the president’s office at NMC, talking to the college’s then-president Bill Yankee. He was told the college didn’t have a jazz band, and that to get one started he’d need to find an adjunct faculty member and at least 12 members. He approached Mike Davis, whom he’d met in high school, and Davis agreed to take on the role of music director.
“Mike Davis was huge. I was just a crazy high school kid. He made it a reality. It started in the fall of 1978. We had our first concert in 1979,” said Gauthier.
When Davis left, Chris Bickley, who was leading the Reef Petroleum Big Band, came in as director. While he was leading the group he took it to the Aquinas Jazz Festival in Grand Rapids. Bickley was followed by Laurie Sears and then Pete Asch, and Mike Hunter took over in 1990.
It was during Hunter’s tenure that the program expanded. He welcomed additional musicians to sit in and occasionally double parts, but it got to the point that there were more than the group could comfortably accommodate. He also wanted to make sure that there were opportunities for younger players to learn jazz styles and repertoire.
“We were getting into charts that were more advanced. I started the second [the Jazz Lab Band] for kids who wanted to develop the skills to transfer to a university, but I just couldn’t throw them in front of a Buddy Rich chart,” he said.
Hunter also took on the task of leading the Vocal Jazz Ensemble at its start, when the original director abruptly left just before it was to begin.
“Steve Sandner moved to Arizona about two weeks before [the semester started]. Mark Puchala [then the head of the music program at NMC] came to me, and I said I’d do it.
“To me, the most fun was rehearsals, the camaraderie, and friendships. The standing joke was that it was musicians’ bowling night. It always came down to the people,” he said. “I had a blast and learned a lot.”
When Hunter retired in 2014 after 24 years, he was succeeded as director of the bands by one of his predecessors, Laurie Sears. And completing the circle, founding director Mike Davis returned as the director of the Vocal Jazz Ensemble.
For Sears, the chance to work with a mix of traditional college students, community members, semi-professional, and professional musicians was an opportunity she jumped at. “I love the mix. I had experience with adult band camp at Interlochen,” she said. “When Mike approached me, I said yes.”
She said the approach to the two bands differs in some ways. “The Big Band has played together for many years. It’s riddled with pros and verges on being a professional band. The other is less experienced. It’s a nice mix of players who share their experience with others.”
Gauthier isn’t the only member of the band with longevity. Several others have been part of the group for a number of years, such as Doug Endicott, Dean Kolden, Adam and Eric Olson and Mitch Ronk. Trumpet player Bill Fromm has been on board for nearly as long as Gauthier, though he took a single-semester break when he briefly moved to Florida. Like many others, he saw it as a chance to pick up his instrument after not playing for years. “It got me back into playing,” said Fromm, who has since been in the band for some 30-plus years.
Today, he not only plays, but also frequently leads the melody. “It doesn’t get much better than a big band as a trumpet player. In rock or blues, you’re in the back row, maybe play a solo once in a while.”
Being in the band only whetted his appetite for more, which grew into Jazz North, an eight-piece band populated in large part by current and former members of the NMC jazz bands. In addition, many of those in the bands also play in musicals at Old Town Playhouse and other bands around the area.
Including Gauthier, who regularly plays with his blues band and other groups. His day job also allows him the financial flexibility and time to play. “I don’t need music to pay the bills. It’s not a job. I’m always having the best time on stage.”
People typically leave jobs, move, begin and end relationships over the course of four decades. So the question remains: Why does Gauthier continue in the band after 40 years?
For him, the answer is simple. “Love for music. I play in a number of bands. I love playing jazz, rock, funk.” But there’s a deeper layer to it as well. “I like making people smile or dance. That’s what puts a smile inside my heart,” Gauthier said.
The NMC Big Band, Jazz Lab Band, and Vocal Jazz Ensemble perform at Milliken Auditorium at 7:30 Saturday, April 20. Tickets are $12 for adults, $7 for students and seniors. Go to www.MyNorthTickets.com.