Mic Gillette, of legendary Tower of Power horn section, dies
By Jim Harrington
The Bay Area music community was reeling after news broke that Mic Gillette, a talented trumpet and trombone player and founding member of East Bay soul-R&B powerhouse Tower of Power, died unexpectedly over the weekend. He was 64.
"Today we are shocked, stunned, and saddened to learn that Mic Gillette has passed away," Tower of Power said on its Facebook page on Sunday. "We are told that a sudden heart attack took him. Please keep Mic's family in your thoughts and prayers during this most difficult time."
Gillette will be remembered for more than being a key component of Tower of Power's legendary horn section, which is routinely ranked among the best of its kind over the last 50 years. He also touched many in the East Bay with his tireless involvement with and support for middle and high school music programs.
Mic Gillette, left, an original member of Tower of Power, plays along with jazz band students Alexander Grover, center, and Alec Michels during an early morning jazz band practice at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette Calif., on Jan. 20, 2005. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group Archives) ( DAN ROSENSTRAUCH )
Greg Brown, instrumental music director at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, says Gillette was "an over-the-top supporter of young musicians and music in the schools" and was "always full of life, enthusiasm and incredibly inspirational."
"I so appreciate knowing and working with him and having the privilege of hosting him as a guest artist with my students," Brown said on Facebook. "He was hugely influential in the development of the trumpet lineage at Northgate High School and among countless young musicians."
Growing up in California, Gillette took to music at a very early age. His father, Ray Gillette, was an acclaimed trombonist who reportedly performed in legendary big bands led by Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and others.
Gillette was still a teen in the mid-1960s when he began working with a group of musicians with whom he would go on to form the Oakland band Tower of Power. Alongside saxophonists Emilio Castillo, Stephen "Doc" Kupka and Skip Mesquite; multi-instrumentalist Greg Adams and others, Gillette helped Tower of Power break through to mainstream popularity in the early '70s, with such classic soul-funk offerings as "Bump City" and "Back to Oakland."
The acclaimed brass player, who performed on both trumpet and trombone, was prominently featured on the band's best-known recordings, including such hits as "You're Still a Young Man," "So Very Hard to Go" and "What Is Hip?"
He remained with Tower of Power until the mid-1980s, when he decided to trade in the touring life to spend more time with his family. He rejoined the seminal Oakland act from 2009 to 2011.
"Mic was without a doubt the greatest brass player I've ever known," Tower of Power band leader Emilio Castillo said on the band's website. "Our sincere condolences go out to his wife, Julia, and his daughter, Megan, and their entire family."
Gillette was also a member of two other highly influential Bay Area rock acts — Sons of Champlin and Cold Blood. He also spent some time in Blood, Sweat & Tears, the jazz-rock act known for such popular tunes as "Spinning Wheel."
His talents were greatly valued by some of the biggest artists in the world. Over the decades, Gillette recorded and performed with such platinum-selling outfits as the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Sheryl Crow and the Doobie Brothers, among many others. He also formed his own group, the Mic Gillette Band, of which his daughter Megan was a member.
In recent years, Gillette had resided in Oregon.
Beyond the bright lights, Gillette was known for his Music in the Schools program, which helped a number of struggling programs stay afloat. He was an avid supporter of music education as well as a "great teacher," says Bob Athayde, director of music education at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette.
"If you experienced Mic in a Masterclass at the Lafayette Summer Music Workshop, he was spellbinding," Athayde wrote on his Facebook page. "Students left his class uplifted and energized.
"There has never been a trumpet player like Mic," Athayde added, "and I don't think that we will hear or experience anyone like him again. I'll never forget the words he spoke to my nervous Stanley M.S. Jazz Messengers: 'Guys, it's called playing music, not working music. Relax and have fun!' "