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Mundell Lowe: Jazz Master

Thursday, 07 December 2017 06:07 PM Written by 



Jazz guitar great James Mundell Lowe, best known as "Mundy," who died Saturday December 2nd in San Diego at 95, had the good fortune to be able to celebrate that birthday onstage, guitar in hand, performing as he had since his teens. Despite battling two forms of cancer, kidney disease and cardiac problems in the past ten years, Lowe persevered until suffering a fall several weeks ago.

Lowe, also an in-demand session and studio musician first in New York, then in Los Angeles, Lowe had a rich and varied career that crossed paths with some of the most iconic figures in jazz, among them Charlie Parker, Ray Brown, Andre Previn, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Bob Cooper, Charles Mingus, Ray McKinley and Carmen McRae as well as various pop singers he accompanied on records.

He got to all that on a circuitous route from his birthplace, rural  Shady Grove in Southeast Mississippi, to Manhattan, LA and finally San Diego, where he was born in 1922. Starting to play guitar in 1928, he was a professional in his teens, when his family moved to New Orleans. He wound up in Nashville in 1939, playing with Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys, a Bob Wills-style western swing band, on the Grand Ole Opry. Pioneer amplified jazz guitar great Charlie Christian, who became famous by his work with Benny Goodman, was his first hero.

But his musical career really blossomed after his World War II Army service, when he joined drummer-singer Ray McKinley's hard-swinging orchestra, recommended by producer John Hammond, the same John Hammond who discovered Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

1946: "Howdy Friends" with the Ray McKinley Orchestra. Lowe gets the second solo break.

Working in New York, Lowe became a staff musician at NBC in the era when TV networks and even local stations employed live musicians. From 1952 to 1965, he was part of the musical team on The Today Show. He also a role in the early career of jazz piano giant Bill Evans, who played in Lowe's jazz group. Evans wrote his now-famous instrumental "Waltz For Debby" to honor two "Debbys": his own niece and Lowe's daughter.

On several occasions, Lowe worked for Benny Goodman and like many of Goodman's former sidemen, found the clarinetist, known for his mood swings and eccentricities, difficult to work with

Lowe recorded his own albums for the Riverside label and later, created non-jazz albums of TV themes, including collection of themes from detective shows of the era and other mood music albums.

1957 :"It's A Grand Night For Swinging"

1961: "The Lost And The Lonely" from his album Blues For A Stripper.

Still working for NBC, Lowe moved to Hollywood in 1965, doing club and session work on the side. He became musical director of the famed Monterey Jazz Festival from 1981 to 1987, when he relocated to San Diego. He still performed overseas and around the country, like this 1985 engagement with another former country picker: jazz guitar master Johnny Smith.

1985: "Seven Come Eleven" with Johnny Smith at a Mobile, Alabama jazz festival.

2007: "Waltz For Debby" with the late Irish guitarist Louis Stewart.

2015: "Tangerine" with Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pisano.


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