Interview with trumpet and trombone player Mic Gillette of Tower of Power, a world-renowned musician

"I believe 'Black Music' is really all about the voice, and horns are very complementary to the voice. There have been some great arrangers over the years who understand this. I play Soul Music."

Mic Gillette: The Power of Soul

Mic Gillette is the world-renowned trumpet and trombone player who has appeared on countless CDs and record albums, spanning five decades, for some of the biggest names in the business, including a dozen members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mic's musical career has spanned many decades and his father was the most influential person in making music his life. After touring for many years with Tower of Power he decided to settle down with his family. He has since began a program called, "Music in the Schools" to help struggling music programs nationwide to keep their doors open. He continues to teach record, arrange and play live gigs in Northern California.

Mic is best known for 40 plus years of stellar horns work with Cold Blood, Tower of Power, and the Sons of Champlin. But not as many people realize that he has appeared on countless albums and CDs for some of the biggest names in the music business--Santana, Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow, Doobie Brothers, Quincy Jones, Roy Buchanan, Jefferson Starship, Huey Lewis and the News, and numerous others. Mic also enjoyed a brief stint with Blood, Sweat & Tears. An original member and leader of the legendary Tower of Power Horn Section, Mic has also established an enviable reputation for his work with youth and school bands. In particular, his affinity for working with middle school and high school students has endeared him to a whole new generation of fans in the 21st century. In 2009, Mic rejoined Tower of Power on a full-time basis after a 25-year absence, a position he held until February 2011. He is currently involved in local music projects in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Mic Gillette Band (MGB) released their first CD Moon Doggy and the band is currently working  live gigs in  Northern CA.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in music and what are your first musical memories?

I grew up in a very musical home. My Father was one of the all-time greats on trombone, and had started at a very early age. I was 4 when he brought home a trumpet for my 7 year old brother, Pete, and began giving him lessons. Pete wasn’t very interested in it, but I was. The trouble was my Father thought I was too young to handle an instrument yet, and I was told to not touch it until I was older. But I sat and watched every lesson and paid attention to all of the details about playing the trumpet, and when nobody was around, I would sneak the horn out and try to do the things Pete didn’t care about. One day my Father taught Pete the C scale fingerings and how to move up and down the horn, and I sat nearby, learning the fingerings by tapping my fingers on my leg. Pete wasn’t really getting it and they both soon gave up, frustrated. I waited until I felt they had both gone outside, then snuck the trumpet out and started playing the C scale. It was EASY! I got all the way up to the last note when the door opened and there stood my Dad. I was busted! He was saying, “You’re finally practicing” when he noticed it was me, caught red-handed, holding the horn. He said, “Where’s your brother?” Right then Pete went running by the back window and I pointed at him, figuring I was really in trouble now. He looked quite surprised and said, “That was you?” I said, “Yes, I really want to play the trumpet and I was being very careful!” He repeated, “That was you?” I knew that I was either going to get a whoopin’ or get to play the trumpet, when Dad said, “Play that again!” I thought, no sweat! I played the scale again and didn’t miss a note. He said, “Well I’ll be!” He grabbed me and the trumpet, literally ran to the car and we drove an hour to his favorite music store, where we went in and he bought me the biggest trumpet book in the world, the Arban’s Complete Trumpet Method. We got back in the car and sat there for almost 3 hours, until the sun went down and we couldn’t read any more, then we drove home. This was easily one of the happiest days of my life.

"Get either a day job or a rich girlfriend. Then you can always have a home. Play from the heart. Sometimes it pays, sometimes it doesn’t, but nobody else will be able to say exactly what you say, musically."

With such an illustrious career, what has given you the most satisfaction musically?

I really enjoy helping young aspiring musicians find their voice and look for their path(s). I’ve had a wonderful professional life and have been very lucky to get so many great opportunities, but the way I would like most to be remembered, is by someone coming up to a great player maybe 20 or 30 years from now and asking them who were their influences. THAT is where I wish most to be mentioned and remembered. Future players are supposed to be BETTER than our generation. Because, you know what? My generation’s not too bad!

Is there any similarity between the music today and the music of the late sixties and seventies?

Yes, I find that horns and real arrangements are making a strong comeback, adding a great musicality to many modern recordings. There are so many flavors to use in so many directions. Even Green Day uses horns! And here comes Bruno Mars!

What do you miss most nowadays of the music of past?

For the most part, I miss the good old “Pocket”. The “Slot”. Letting a good ride go and get folks up out of their seats.

What makes the horn sections so popular during 60s / 70s?

It brought back some of the sounds and blends from the Big band era, while dressing up the simpler Rock & Roll.

"Future players are supposed to be BETTER than our generation. Because, you know what? My generation’s not too bad!" 

Photo by Nelson G. Onofre

What characterizes the sound of Mic Gillette?

I would hope that would be a big fat round sound, clarity, range and versatility. I play all of the brass instruments, and I play them pretty much the same. Massive air support, correct mouthpieces, with the best horns I can find. My philosophy is play every note the best you can. Always perform, whether it’s in a room by yourself or in front of a big crowd.

Do you know why the horn section is connected to the “Black” music?

I believe “Black Music” is really all about the voice, and horns are very complementary to the voice. There have been some great arrangers over the years who understand this. I play Soul Music.

What are the secrets of trumpet?

The modern trumpet was designed by Adolf Sax. I’m not sure if he just made some mistakes in the design, or if he wanted more people to play what was then much less popular than the brass instruments, the Saxophone. There are several important things about playing the trumpet that should not be secrets. To me the most important thing is to fill your horn with air. If you can’t do that, fill it up with dirt and put a plant in it.

Are there any memories of Tower Of Power and Cold Blood which you’d like to share with us?

I was 19 years old and had been in the band that became the Tower of Power when I was asked to play lead trumpet as an extra horn on the first Cold Blood album. I brought Emilio (Castillo) and Doc (Kupka) with me to the session and they bent the producer’s ear about our band to the point he sent 2 of his assistants out to see and hear us play. We were soon signed and recording with the same producer.

"I find that horns and real arrangements are making a strong comeback, adding a great musicality to many modern recordings. There are so many flavors to use in so many directions. Even Green Day uses horns! And here comes Bruno Mars!" (Photo: Mic with Tower of Power)

Why did you think that Mic Gillette continued to generate such a devoted following?

That is a hard one to answer. I have stayed steady on my course of playing strongly and with conviction. If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, you have to learn to baffle them with your bullshit. I’m pretty sure it takes both to succeed.

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

From the time I got involved professionally, in the mid sixties, it was all about record companies and getting your songs played on the radio, and be on a major record label. Now, for the most part, record companies are becoming more and more a thing of the past. The internet and word of mouth is how most people learn of new artists and new tunes.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

My Father, hands down. That and from being a teacher. Best way to learn is to teach.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

There have been a bunch of bests actually. Bringing my Father in to play on the Back To Oakland album was a dream come true and the completion of a life circle. I had started out playing shows with him from the time I was 8 years old. Another best is having my beautiful daughter Megan join me onstage and join my band, MGB. The most recent best is holding my one year old grandson Maverick while I perform on trumpet. The worst was being assaulted by the ghetto punk lead singer with a band I was in (you all know so well) because I had the audacity to yell at him for insulting my wife at a gig. He has since been let go. (Photo: Mic Gillette Band with his daughter Megan)

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Right now. Our band has just released our first CD called Moon Doggy and our daughter Megan is one of the lead singers and plays percussion. I love this band like no other.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Get either a day job or a rich girlfriend. Then you can always have a home. Play from the heart. Sometimes it pays, sometimes it doesn’t, but nobody else will be able to say exactly what you say, musically.

Which memory from recording times makes you smile?

Standing next to my Father, Ray Gillette and playing trombone with him on Time Will Tell (Back To Oakland).

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Keep it simple. Less is more. Made perfect sense to me.

"We learn from the past and we teach to the future."

Photo by Gwen Juarez

You have played with many musicians (From Buchanan to Papa John Creach and from Santana to Little Feat and more). It must be hard, but which meets have been the biggest experiences for you and why?

Recording with Little Feat on the Waiting For Columbus album in London. Best live recording in the history of Rock & Roll. Jamming with the Rolling Stones in front of 75,000 people in 1981 was pretty good too.

What are the differences and similarities between the BLUES, JAZZ, SOUL and ROCK feeling?

That is a deep question. In my mind and my experiences they all tie in together in many ways. Blues led to jazz, which led to both Soul and Jazz. The feel changes and the chord changes get either simpler or more complex, but it’s a very personal question to ask someone which might be their favorite and why. It reminds me of someone asking me which is my favorite horn to play. My answer is always the same, what song are we talking about? It’s all about the flavors.

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

 Working on Rolling Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman’s A Stone Alone album. We had Van Morrison on piano, Sly Stone on bass, Bill Wyman on guitar, and myself on trombone. A picture of that session hangs in my studio.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Sitting in with the Stones, touring with Quincy Jones and the Crusaders, The SNACK Benefit in San Francisco in the early 70s, Little Feat Waiting For Columbus, on and on….

"In my mind and my experiences they all tie in together in many ways. Blues led to jazz, which led to both Soul and Jazz." (Photo: Mic with Lydia Pense and Cold Blood) 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues, jazz and soul is always with us.  Why do think that is?

I think it’s all “Soul” music. Stuff that makes you think and feel and groove. Brings out the best in us.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is……

Play with my grandson, go camping, play softball

As member of "Music in the Schools" projects, what is the relation of new generations with music of past?

We learn from the past and we teach to the future. Doing clinics and concerts with school bands of all ages gives me the chance to share my knowledge and feelings, and gives the younger players the opportunity to learn from someone who came up through school bands and garage bands all the way through the professional ranks, only to return to the schools where kids decide how serious they are about this thing we do. I am the luckiest man walking.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Rock music?

It has to be the sensitivity and communicating real thoughts and ideas without saying a word. When someone speaks to you musically in these genres, you can easily understand what they are telling you. If someone comes up to you and starts babbling in Mandarin or Tagalog, there’s a good chance you will have no idea what they mean.

"I have stayed steady on my course of playing strongly and with conviction. If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, you have to learn to baffle them with your bullshit. I’m pretty sure it takes both to succeed." (Photo: Mic and his grandson Maverick)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

My grandson played his first note on a trumpet a week before he was 1 year old. I just realized I wasted the first 3 years of my life.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Home. Do you really need to ask why? Now would be fine, even though that’s exactly where I am. It would be cool to go back to my childhood as well. My father put together a family band with his mother on organ, my older brother Pete on trombone, my sister Karen on clarinet, me on trumpet and my Dad, of course, on trombone. Yeah, that would be so cool. Say around 1958 or so.

Mic Gillette - official website

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