Full Circle

MUNDY, MUNDY: The San Diego Jazz Community Remembers a Quiet Giant

Mundell Lowe, 1922-2017. Photo by Michael Oletta.

Lowe, performing with daughter Alicia Previn.

At 10:43 a.m. on December 2, electric guitar explorer Mundell Lowe made a peaceful transition into the next world surrounded by loved ones at the age of 95. Mr. Lowe remained musically active until the very end, knocking out the audience gathered for his birthday concert at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach last April with an astonishing performance that continues to reverberate in the memories of those in attendance.

Mr. Lowe’s biography reads like a veritable “who’s who” of the history of recorded music. Included in his Curriculum Vitae are associations with some of the finest vocalists of his time, beginning with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Ruth Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., and Carmen McCrea to name just a few. His skills and sensitivity as an accompanist were legendary.

As a guitar player, he led a “Zelig”-type existence, performing or recording with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Benny Carter, Lester Young, Red Norvo, Benny Goodman, Johnny Hodges, J.J. Johnson, Quincy Jones, Al Cohn, and Ben Webster among many others.

Mr. Lowe was also active as a composer and arranger in Hollywood. For television, he scored the music for The Wild, Wild West, Hawaii Five-0, and Starsky and Hutch. For the movies, Mr. Lowe is responsible for Satan in High Heels, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, and Billy Jack.

In conversation, though, Mr. Lowe downplayed all of those incredible accomplishments, preferring to concentrate on a breathtaking ability to inhabit the moment. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did not dwell on the past, and his personal sound continued to evolve almost exponentially. He possessed a warm and fluid legato and his distillation of harmony was stunningly rich and detailed.

I had the exquisite fortune of conversing with Mr. Lowe several times over the last seven years, and I remember him as an extraordinary gentleman, a sharp wit, and a true improviser. Here are some fond memories from around the community from those who knew him best and those who admired him from afar.

Step-daughter and violinist Alicia Previn recalls that affinity for accompanying others. “He was just the best guy to be around musically. He had such passion for the guitar and a sense of community. I feel so thankful that he was involved in my musical life and that he took me under his wing. We were going to do an album together but then he got to be too sick. Once I moved to San Diego, he started to teach me some older songs. He loved the sound of the fiddle. We started practicing together, and even though I was raised on jazz, I had never really played it. His attitude was so relaxed, he’d say, ‘Play the melody, then fool around with it.’ He got me going, and playing, and learning the songs, and, without fail, when he’d have a concert, he’d invite me up to play.”

As a guitarist, Previn remembers her father’s deliberate modesty. “He wasn’t one of those 90-mile an hour guys,” she said. “He would create this beautiful picture with chords and the melody. He appreciated the guys with a distinctive sound, rather than flashy players. He loved Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, and Clark Terry.”

Trombonist Matt Hall is in his twenties, and he looks back on his brief time with Lowe appreciatively. “There’s a huge crater in the San Diego jazz world now,” Hall declared over the phone, recalling one particularly poignant exchange. “One day we all ended up in Mundell’s living room, spellbound as he recalled meeting Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. You could hear a pin drop—everyone was so quiet when he was talking. I came away with two things I learned from being around him. First of all, to be a good person, and, second, that anything is possible if you work hard enough. I know that sounds like a cliché but he proved that it’s true. His career is a testament to that —I mean, it is really second to none. So he taught me to never settle for less and to always reach for the best that I can be in every way.”

“He was a self-made man,” mused his vocalist daughter Debbie Lowe. “He started with nothing and then made himself into the person he became. I think the world should know how kind and generous he was to female singers. From what I understand, my dad was very big on making sure that female singers got their due. He promoted them, gave them opportunities and made sure they got paid.”

Although she didn’t become a jazz singer per se, she felt the influence of her father in myriad ways. “Musically, he gave me a really good ear for harmony—I owe all of that to him. I remember when I was young he’d play a scale, then I would sing that scale and he would play a harmony. I used to go with him to all his record dates, so from a very early age I knew that he was an important and powerful man. I went in the other direction, into pop and country music—maybe because I knew I couldn’t compete with him. Later, I got into musical theater, and he couldn’t understand why I wasn’t a star, so I always had his support, which made me feel really good. He was gone a lot when we were younger, but as we got older, we all got closer, which was wonderful. So I’ll miss him as a father and as a musician, for all the things he gave the world. I miss him already.”

Throughout his storied career, but especially in his august years, Mr. Lowe enjoyed the company of other guitarists, and in San Diego Bob Boss and Jaime Valle were two of his favorites. “He really reinforced to me that music is a lifetime commitment,” Boss recalls. “His enthusiasm and his curiosity never failed him, whether it was discovering new music or refining something he already knew. After he came out of surgery a while back, his arm was really sore from having an IV in it—he was really frustrated because it hurt too much to play. But two days later, he called to say that he had warmed up with scales and tunes, and that I should come over right away! He couldn’t wait to get the guitar back in his hands.”

Likewise, Valle and Mr. Lowe, who lived within walking distance in their Tierrasanta neighborhood, grew closer over the years, touring Europe together with ad hoc rhythm sections in 2007. “I was listening to him for years before I actually met him,” Valle related via Skype from his home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “When I finally did get to meet him, he came to my gig in La Jolla and sat right in front and didn’t say a word. Afterward, he gave me his card and I almost fainted, because I was so nervous! It turned out that he lived right down the street from me, so we would meet almost every day. He was one of those guys that no matter what guitar he picked up, he sounded like Mundy. He was the perfect example of the sound coming from the hands of the player, not the instrument or the electronics. He was also a tireless explorer; even in his twenties, he was already experimenting with pan-tonality and stuff like that before anyone else was doing it.”

Ken Poston, the general manager of KSDS Jazz 88, is a respected jazz historian whose Jazz Explorations program airs every Saturday from 7 to 10 a.m. “I always think of Mundell as being one of the pioneer electric guitarists in jazz,” Poston related via email. “As a contemporary to Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel he developed his own unique style that was based on a very melodic approach. His timing was impeccable and he had one of the greatest sounds of all time. I think Barney and Herb initially became more well-known because they were working with Jazz at the Philharmonic with Oscar Peterson while Mundell was behind the scenes at NBC. [Lowe worked as the staff guitarist at the Today Show for approximately 13 years.] Besides being one of the great guitarists he was a pioneer studio musician, not only as a guitarist, but as a composer as well. He was also an important mentor to others and not just other guitar players; most notably Bill Evans.” [Mr. Lowe introduced Mr. Evans to Riverside Records owner Orrin Keepnews, resulting in his first recording contract.]

Nashville-based bassist and vocalist Jim Ferguson worked with Mr. Lowe since the mid-’90s and, like everyone else I talked to, he praised the guitarist’s accompanying skills. “For me, as a singer, those attributes were really great. I never had to worry about whether he was going to step on me. Playing with him was always really comfortable.

“He had a total awareness of what he was doing,” Ferguson recalled over FaceTime from Tennessee. “For example, a few years ago we did an Ellington night at the W.C. Handy Festival. By that point, his macular degeneration had gotten so bad that he couldn’t see the charts [he was nearly blind by then], but he played everything flawlessly from memory. He knew all the arrangements, his time was perfect and so were his solos.” The bassist, who was in L.A. last April at the same time as Mr. Lowe’s birthday concert at Dizzy’s, wasn’t about to miss an opportunity to convene with his mentor. “I was fortunate enough to be close, so I rented a car and came down to San Diego. He played everybody else right off the stage that night. It was amazing.”

As did many others, Ferguson cherished Mr. Lowe abilities as a conversationalist and raconteur. “I’ll miss the stories—he was an encyclopedic storyteller. He had played with absolutely everyone and could tell you a story about them all.”

Echoing that sentiment is San Diego jazz photographer Michael Oletta. “Mundy had a great memory and so many anecdotes from his amazing career. I would love to throw a famous name at him just to get his brutally honest response, which was always both humorous and to the point.”

Mr. Lowe’s generosity with, and enthusiasm for, younger musicians is almost as legendary as his guitar skills. Violinist Nora Francesca Germain met Lowe while she was visiting Bob Boss and preparing for a gig in town. “He invited me up one night while he was playing at Dizzy’s. I remember the place was as hot as a sauna. He was a real gentleman and a very generous guy. Some people cop an attitude if they don’t know you and you try to sit in—they can be kind of condescending—but he wasn’t like that at all. He asked me what I wanted to play and I told him, and a half second later he came up with the most gorgeous introduction at the most perfect tempo and it was just fantastic. Getting to play with him was just beyond anything I expected in life.”

Germain noticed other salient features in Mr. Lowe’s masterful approach to stage presentation. “He had this amazing comfort level with the audience,” she recalls. “He would just play what he wanted and I think he knew it was going to turn out great. I also got the impression that he didn’t overthink what he was doing. Sometimes when you play with people you can really feel the effort—like they are struggling to get somewhere, but he was very Zen in that way; it all just seemed very natural for him. Almost effortless. And finally, he was just so welcoming to people, so supportive. Just a very swinging guy who didn’t have a lot of the hang-ups that some musicians get weighted down by.”

To vocalist Lorraine Castellanos Mr. Lowe left a deep and indelible impression, both as a musician and a human being. “I only played with him a few times,” she said. “But we did one gig at the Westgate Hotel with [bassist] Luther Hughes that will always be etched in my mind. Later on, I went to his house to drop off a check, and I ended up spending a couple of hours talking with him and his wife Betty [vocalist Betty Bennett]. They were so much fun to be around. He talked about meeting Charlie Parker and he told me a great story about playing with Sarah Vaughan [a favorite of both of ours] and how their trio album After Hours with [bassist] George Duvivier came about. He was full of stories.”

But it wasn’t just the stories that entranced Castellanos. “Oh my god, he was the best accompanist I ever played with! He had this magic touch, this sixth sense of where you were going and the best way of getting you there. No one really plays like that anymore. As a singer, it was the best experience of my whole career.”

Flute virtuoso Holly Hofmann worked often with Mr. Lowe, teaming up for an album called Duo Personality on the Concord record label shortly after he arrived in San Diego. “I was very close with his family,” Hofmann remembered. “He always called me his adopted daughter. I’ll remember him as a kind of surrogate dad. After my father passed, Mundell and Betty told my mom that they would always look out for me. He was always that way. He gave me a lot of advice about the music business and also about playing in a way that incorporated all of the best elements of music.”

After talking with scores of musicians and a few family members, certain descriptions keep coming back when discussing the influence and legacy of Mr. Lowe, including generosity, support, and elegance. A fine bunch of attributes for the Baptist minister’s son from Shady Grove, Mississippi to be sure. I’ll let three of his fellow musicians sum it up.

“He had played with almost everyone that I admired as a musician,” says Jaime Valle. “But when I used to get these little gigs that only paid a hundred bucks, he was always up to do them. Obviously the money didn’t matter. He was such an optimist, and he continued with that attitude right up to the end. He told me a few weeks ago that he was going to be able to walk soon and he couldn’t wait to try out a new guitar pedal that he had seen. Even at 95, he was always looking for new sounds. He played the guitar like an orchestra. He was not really ‘one of the guys,’ he was way above us, but he didn’t act that way.”
“I already miss being able to pick up the phone and call him,” remembers bassist Ferguson. “I’ll miss his support, because he was really generous with his encouragement, which meant a lot to me. For a guy from the South, living in Nashville, that was important. Always generous with his time and skillset, that’s what I’ll remember.”

Bob Boss, who played close to a hundred gigs with Mr. Lowe, gets the last word. “He was always polite and calm and considerate—a real gentleman. I’m going to miss his friendship. He had a warmth and sincerity about him that the world needs more of.”

Mr. Lowe is survived by his wife Betty Bennett [married for 43 years] daughters Debbie Lowe, Sharon Mundelle Lowe, Jessica Lowe-Wilson, Alicia Previn, Claudia Previn Stasny, and son Adam Mundell Lowe.

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