Horn legend Mic Gillette has been making music for more than 50 years with some of the biggest names in the business — and some of the smallest.
Acclaimed around the world for his skills on trumpet and trombone, Gillette is also a long-standing guest artist with the Columbia Jazz Series and will return this weekend for the 35th annual Big Band Jazz Festival.
Best known as an original member of Tower of Power, Gillette spent nearly 20 years with legendary Oakland funk band, joining in 1965 and staying through 1984 as leader of its world-renowned horn section.
Leaving the group to devote more time to his family, Gillette rejoined Tower of Power full-time in 2009 after a 25-year absence. The run included an 18-month world tour covering 58 countries and 35 states.
However, that lineup splintered when the band could no longer abide the front man.
“I left because the lead singer kept insulting the audience and the band members on stage,” Gillette recalled from his home in Concord. “He sang out of tune, too. We’d see people walking out and I’d say ‘There goes another person who will never go to a Tower of Power show again.’ ”
That singer has since been ousted, Gillette said.
Over the years, Gillette has also been a member of Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Sons of Champlin and has recorded with such artists as Cold Blood, Elton John, Santana, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Starship, Commander Cody, John Lee Hooker, Little Feat, Rod Stewart, Elvin Bishop, Quincy Jones, Huey Lewis, José Feliciano, the Bee Gees, America, Sergio Mendes, Rodney Crowell, Heart, Dave Mason, Al Kooper, Sheryl Crow, Norton Buffalo, Roy Buchanan, the Doobie Brothers, the Rolling Stones and dozens of others.
Lesser known sessions include work with the Voodoo Roosters, High Inergy, the Ryth-o-Matics, Masayoshi Takanaka, Bononia Sound Machine, Professor R.J. Ross and Doctor Funk.
“For the most part, the big name artists show up at the session because we make such a big difference in the tracks and they usually like to have some say in our role,” Gillette said. “Sometimes it’s just the producer and us.”
Gillette made his solo recording debut in 2005 with “Ear Candy,” featuring guest appearances by members of Chicago, Santana, the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power and Cold Blood.
“Funky Good Time,” penned by James Brown, is woven throughout the album between songs, a tribute to Gillette’s funk influences and background.
The Etta James classic “Tell Mama” features the original Tower of Power horn section — Emilio Castillo, Stephen “Doc” Kupka, Greg Adams and Skip Mesquite — along with Tower of Power bassist Rocco Prestia.
Fulfilling a longtime dream, Gillette recently formed his own group, the Mic Gillette Band — MGB for short — which released its first CD, “Moon Doggy,” in December.
Members include his daughter, Megan Gillette McCarthy, on vocals and percussion, Greg Barker on guitar, Clinton Day on bass, Matt Martinez on trumpet and Dave Hawkes on drums.
“I do a little singing now, too,” Gillette said.
He is also a regular member of crooner Josh Pfeiffer’s band.
Among his favorite gigs, however, are festivals and clinics for middle and high school students, like the Columbia gathering on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s all about the kids,” Gillette said. “It’s a really great jazz festival in that it’s not competitive. We listen to the bands and critique them and then at the end of the day there’s a big jam session. It’s one of the greatest lessons a kid can get.”
Performing in the Columbia Jazz Series concerts — which he has done since 2001 — is also a pleasant experience because of their low-key nature, he said.
“There is no stress, which makes the performance much better — you can miss a note and not start crying,” Gillette said.
Rod Harris, director of the Columbia Jazz Series, said Gillette is “one of a kind as a horn player.”
“His peers consider him one of the very best studio recording artists,” Harris said. “There isn’t anyone that can imitate that big beautiful tone and full sound.”
Harris noted that Tower of Power’s signature song, “You’re Still a Young Man,” was written to feature Gillette, the youngest member of the band at the time.
“Trumpet players from around the world have tried to emulate his sound and style in the famous opening sequence,” Harris said. “Mic’s trumpet solo on TOP’s ‘Sparkling in the Sand’ has also been widely influential and copied by many other trumpet soloists.”
Gillette is the rare musician who can play both lead trumpet and a powerful slide trombone, Harris said.
A Bay Area native born May 7, 1951, Gillette picked up his first trumpet at age 4. Forever linked to Tower of Power, he actually joined the band in 1965 when they were known as the Gotham City Crimefighters and based in Fremont.
Among his fellow original members — and still with the band — was bass player Francis Rocco Prestia, who was born in Tuolumne and moved to the Bay Area at age 5.
“I’ve known Rocco since I was 10 years old,” Gillette recalled. “We were on the same Little League baseball team in Fremont.”
The group changed its name to Tower of Power and moved to Oakland in 1968, he said.
After leaving Tower of Power in 1984, Gillette settled in Manteca with his wife, Julia. They also built a cabin in the remote Calaveras County town of West Point, not knowing it would one day become their full-time residence.
“When the water in Manteca started showing high levels of arsenic, all we could do was run to our place in West Point,” Gillette said.
They ended up spending four years there. Julia continued commuting to Modesto, where she was the city’s real property manager and right of way agent, and Mic continued traveling wherever his music took him.
“I really liked it there but it was too distant for my wife to commute and for my gigs,” he said.
Eighteen months of their time in West Point included the Tower of Power world tour, which left Julia largely isolated. To pass the time, she rode horses and wrote a book, “7 Suppers for Sassy Soulful Cooks.”
She now manages MGB.
Megan married John McCarthy at the Sonora Opera Hall in 2009. They now have a 16-month-old son, Maverick, and are expecting another child soon.
Gillette and his wife moved back to the Bay Area a year ago to be closer to Megan’s family.
“Maverick is the focus of my life right now besides my band,” Gillette said.
Since moving back to the Bay Area, Gillette has begun a program called “Music in the Schools,” helping struggling music programs nationwide keep their doors open.
He also teaches private lessons, with classes ranging from choosing a horn to breathing, doubling and even choosing the right mouthpiece.
“When most kids get a new horn, they put in the mouthpiece that comes with it and play with that,” Gillette said. “That’s like walking into a shoe store and buying the first pair of shoes you see.
“The instrument is secondary — the mouthpiece makes a world of difference,” he said. “If you get fitted for a mouthpiece, you’ll have more fun, sound better and won’t get brain aneurysms.”
He noted that horn mouthpieces are measured in 1,000ths of an inch and an incorrect shape can result in bruising of the lips.
“If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong,” Gillette said. “It’s called playing music — you don’t work music, you play it. It’s our sandbox. We like playing in it. But kitties like sandboxes, too. So you want to play like No. 1 but you don’t want to step in No. 2.”
Gillette’s affinity for working with students has endeared him to a whole new generation of fans in the 21st century.
“It’s a funny life,” Gillette said. “I’ve already had a great career, sat next to presidents and played the national anthem before 200,000 people. But what I’d like to be remembered for is when someone I taught makes good and when somebody walks up to them and asks how they learned to play like that, they mention my name.”