Mundell Lowe went out swinging

“He was on when we played his 95th birthday party six months ago.”

Mundell Lowe, April 21, 1922–December 2, 2017
  • Mundell Lowe, April 21, 1922–December 2, 2017
  • photo by Michael Oletta

Electric-guitar pioneer Mundell Lowe, who had made San Diego his base for the past 22 years, died at home on December 2. He was 95.

"I'll Never Be the Same"

...by the Mundell Lowe Quartet

...by the Mundell Lowe Quartet

Born in Shady Grove, Mississippi, Lowe’s curriculum vitae is so star-studded that it almost reads like fiction. As a guitarist, he worked with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Sammy Davis Jr., to name a few.

Lowe performed often in the San Diego jazz scene even into his last year on the planet. The community mourns his loss while celebrating his life.

“I was with him about ten days ago,” said fellow guitarist Jaime Valle last week; he worked frequently with Lowe. “And he...didn’t look so good. He was having a hard time breathing but his mood was always upbeat. He had three or four close calls — with different types of cancer, but he always bounced back. In 2014, I took him to the hospital and they told him to get his [affairs] in order because he wasn’t going to live another three months. On the way home he told me, ‘No, they’re full of shit,’ and he lived another three years!”

Like most people who knew Lowe, Valle marveled at his energy.

“After he turned 90, he complained that nobody was calling him for gigs. We did a tour of Europe and he was still carrying his guitar and his luggage through the airport like a regular guy. Like a young dude.”

Flutist Holly Hofmann is another San Diego musician who felt a bond with Lowe: “I first met him when he came here in 1990,” recalls Hofmann. “We connected immediately because he played in a way that reminded me of my father — who taught me how to play jazz. From that point on, he was like family. I could always count on him to be there for me and to tell me what I could be doing better. Mike [Wofford] and I had been visiting him at the rehab facility while he recovered from a broken hip. After he went home, he was very discouraged about playing again — he was struggling with the physical challenge of it, and he was heavily medicated, which is never good for an instrumentalist.”

Bebop legend Charles McPherson appreciated several salient features in Lowe’s playing: “He was able to digest the language of Charlie Parker right when it was happening,” said McPherson. “And he remained very creative until the very end — he had that spark as opposed to people who just play the same old thing. When he took solos, he told a story.”

“He was one of my favorites,” remembers guitarist Peter Sprague. “I was so sad to hear about his passing, although I knew he wasn’t doing well. I loved his playing and his spirit of music. We got the chance to play a bunch of gigs together. He had a really great sense of time — his swing feel and his sense of melody were fantastic and he was always up for playing — he wasn’t flashy but he had a real flow and he knew how to connect. I aspire to play like that.”

Bob Boss is another guitarist who played often with Lowe. “He was incredibly on when we played his 95th birthday party at Dizzy’s six months ago,” said Boss over the phone. “He had visibly aged quite a bit, though, since I had seen him last. But he played great and was in good spirits. He had an elegance about him — his feeling for swing and his sophisticated approach to harmony — which he balanced against a real earthy sense of the blues. He knew every tune and was a cut above most other guitar players. We played close to a hundred times in the 25 years I’ve known him, and at every gig he would surprise me with a chord I’d never heard before.”

“I was lucky enough to play with him three or four times a year,” muses bassist Rob Thorsen. “Nobody played like him. He was so advanced, and he was like a fountain of ideas, and he would constantly change it up. He kept the flow going and it was never forced — a lot of young guys try to do that just to show everyone that they’re a badass, but Mundell did it a lot better and for purely musical reasons. Some players are already set in their ways by the time they turn 25. Other people just continue on this path toward enlightenment their whole lives and that was totally his thing.”

Nate Jarrell is a guitarist who teaches music at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley. “[Lowe] came in to work with our jazz students at the high school. Mundell offered such a wealth of knowledge and experience. It was a phenomenal opportunity for them to spend time with someone who is such an important part of jazz history. I know that he left a lasting impression on our students.”

Piano stalwart Mike Wofford has a similar résumé, having worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Oliver Nelson. “I knew him from recordings ever since I can remember,” said Wofford. “He was one of the giants of jazz guitar, alongside Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, and Wes Montgomery. He was one of the first to get into modern jazz.”

Vocalist/guitarist Lorraine Castellanos didn’t get the opportunity to play often with Lowe, but he still left an indelible impression. “I never met anyone so supportive,” she recalls. “Not only in the musical sense on the stage, but also as an inspiring coach and hero. And behind the scenes, he was so funny. He could tell stories about everybody — especially Sarah Vaughan, who we both loved. He’s not here physically, but his presence is still strong.”

Valle echoes the idea of a lasting inspiration: “Look, man, I’m 70 years old and I live in Mexico. I only gig when everything is right. Mundy didn’t care — he wanted to play every night!”

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