Legendary jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe passed away on the morning of December 2 at the age of 95.
Lowe grew up in Mississippi and, at 17 years old in 1939, joined Pee Wee King’s western swing band, which had a regular slot on the Grand Ole Opry radio program. Producer John Hammond helped Lowe earn a spot in an orchestra fronted by Ray McKinley of the Glenn Miller band.
He moved to New Orleans and then was drafted into the Army in 1943. He reported for his work assignment at Fort McPherson, where he remembered, “This fat desk sergeant from Arkansas was interviewing me. I informed him that I was a professional working guitarist and was hoping to be assigned to the military band somewhere. Meanwhile, he’s flipping through some book and announced that there weren’t any ‘gee-tar jobs’ in the Army. I got sent to the Engineering Corps instead.”
Upon his release in 1945, Lowe headed to New York City, where he worked for NBC for around 13 years and recorded on a number of albums with over two dozen well-known jazz performers. He also performed music for TV programs such as the Today Show, the Wild Wild West, Hawaii Five-O, and others. In addition, he played with Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Benny Goodman.
“I have to be somewhat careful about who I play with, because I have so many specific harmonic references, but I find if I pick the right people, I can just hear what they’re doing and everything flows.”
As for playing with the notoriously volatile bassist/bandleader Charles Mingus, “We were friends,” Lowe recalled. “I never had any problems with Charles. He was a really brilliant guy. He was like other stars I played with, Buddy Rich, or Mel Tormé, or Ray Brown. I let them do the leading, and everything flowed from there.”
In September 2008, Lowe won a lifetime achievement trophy at the San Diego Music Awards. As he approached his 90s, Lowe was living in Tierrasanta with his wife Betty, a well-regarded jazz vocalist. His 95th birthday was staged at Dizzy’s this past April, featuring appearances by Lowe with Jaime Valle, Bob Boss, Jim Plank, Rob Thorsen, and Bob Magnusson.
Compiled from stories by Robert Bush, Dave Good, and Al Young