Mundell Lowe, the guitar master whose many musical partners included Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman and the Everly Brothers, died Saturday at his home in San Diego. He was 95 and had been receiving hospice care.
In the past decade, Lowe had bounced back from angina, bladder cancer, kidney disease and stage IV lung cancer. He fractured his hip about six weeks ago.
“He was like the Energizer bunny, but he was fading the past two weeks,” said Claudia Previn Stasny, Lowe’s stepdaughter.
“Mundell was one of the most important guitarists in jazz history. He was musically ahead of his time and was one of the most generous artists in supporting females in jazz,” said flutist Holly Hofmann, his friend and collaborator the past three decades. They last played music together over Thanksgiving weekend.
Lowe was characteristically spry in April at his 95th birthday concert at the San Diego jazz club Dizzy’s. Rather than just play a few songs, as had been anticipated, he performed for nearly an hour with a band that included fellow guitarists Jaime Valle, Bob Boss and Ron Eschete.
“Mundy recorded with Charlie Parker and just about anyone else you can name. I knew of his reputation many years before I met him. We all did,” said pianist Mike Wofford, a longtime friend of Lowe’s.
“He was, along with Barney Kessel, one of the most sophisticated guitarists in jazz. Mundy was more interested in harmonic creativity than just traditional jazz soloing. He was also a wonderful arranger who did a lot of writing for big bands. And he did movie and TV scoring in Los Angeles.”
Lowe’s film and TV music credits included “Hawaii Five-O,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” and “Billy Jack.” His recording credits ranged from such jazz greats as Charles Mingus, Buddy Rich and Carmen McRae, with whom he made seven albums, to R&B vocal dynamo Ruth Brown, Barry Manilow and Johnny Ray, whose 1951 hit, “Cry,” featured Lowe.
His spare yet eloquent guitar-playing style enhanced any musical setting. His impeccable phrasing and carefully considered choice of notes inspired other musicians around the world.
“Mundell was one of a small handful of guitarists whose performances mesmerized me into signing up to go to the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles during a weekend symposium the school put on to recruit students in 1978,” said Jennifer Batten, who later rose to prominence as Michael Jackson’s lead guitarist.
“I will forever have a snapshot of Mundell in my mind’s eye from that evening.”
James Mundell Lowe was born April 21, 1922, in the Mississippi farming town of Shady Grove. He took up guitar at 6, began playing professionally at 13, and became a full-time musician after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.
“Living on a farm when you’re a kid, I discovered there were no teachers around, so you had to kind of create things yourself,” Lowe recalled in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview. “I didn’t imagine myself growing up to be a farmer. Because my mentality wasn’t there; once I was introduced to the guitar, that’s where my interest was.”
He had an epiphany after hearing recordings of jazz guitar godfather Charlie Christian performing with the clarinet-playing swing king Benny Goodman.
Lowe would go on to work with Goodman as well. It was an experience the soft-spoken guitarist later described in comments punctuated with chuckles and a raised eyebrow.
“I use this line sometimes when I’m onstage and want to tell a joke,” Lowe said in his 2015 interview. “I say: “Yeah, I worked with Benny five times — he fired me three times, and I quit twice!
“That is the truth! He was a rough guy to work with. But he was a wonderful musician. So you kind of put up with the bad to get the good.”
From 1948 to 1965, Lowe was the guitarist and arranger for NBC TV’s “The Today Show.” He became a key mentor to young jazz pianist Bill Evans, then unknown, and was instrumental in helping Evans get his first record deal with the Riverside label in the mid-1950s.
Lowe moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to work as a guitarist and composer for NBC’s News & Special Events Department. In the 1970s and 1980s, he taught at the Grove School of Music in Studio City and the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles.
In 1981, Lowe became the musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. He resigned in 1987, after being asked to serve in the same capacity for a proposed annual jazz festival in Del Mar.
That festival never materialized. But Lowe and his third wife, jazz singer Betty Bennett, happily settled in San Diego. His most recent album, the enchanting “Poor Butterfly,” was released in 2015 on the guitarist’s own record label, Two Helpins’ O’ Collards. His passion for music never ebbed.
“Every morning, I make it a point to play for at least 35 or 40 minutes,” Lowe said in 2015.
“I’ve always said that, when you start out in life and get out of school … find something you love doing and could perhaps make a living at. Maybe not something where you’ll make a lot of money, but enough to live, and you can be very happy with what you do.”
In addition to his wife of 42 years, Lowe is survived by a son, Adam Lowe; daughters Debbie Lowe, Jessica Lowe-Wilson and Shari Lowe; and stepdaughters Alicia Lowe and Claudia Previn Stasny
Varga writes for the San Diego Union Tribune