Mundell Lowe ran away from his Mississippi home at age 16 to play jazz guitar but was drafted into the army two years later, in 1942. Before shipping out, Mundell met producer John Hammond. After Mundell was discharged in 1945, Hammond introduced him to bandleader Ray McKinley, and Mundell played with McKinley exclusively in 1946.
Between 1947 and 1948, Mundell recorded in groups with Helen Humes, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Peanuts Hucko, Davie Tough, Billy Taylor, Cootie Williams, Dinah Washington, Benny Goodman, Fats Navarro, Zoot Sims, Wardell Gray and Charlie Parker.
Today, in Part 2 of my four-part series on Mundell between 1946 and 1964, he talks about Billie Holiday, Mary Lou Williams, Johnnie Ray and Charlie Parker:
JazzWax: What was it like playing behind Billie Holiday?
Mundell Lowe: I first recorded with Billie when I was part of pianist Bobby Tucker’s quartet in 1948. I also recorded with Billie in 1949, with Buster Harding’s Orchestra, which included Lester Young. I first met her in 1948 when I was playing at Café Society in Greenwich Village with George Duvivier on bass and Bill Clark on drums. Billie came in wearing a big mink coat, and as we were talking a little head pushed out of her coat pocket and looked up at me. It was her Chihuahua. She took that dog everywhere.
The biggest kick I had with Billie was playing behind her for about 10 days in April 1948 during Holiday on Broadway. This was a small, little-known revue at the Mansfield Theater in New York. Billie would sing about a dozen songs and then showcase a bunch of groups, including the Bobby Tucker Quintet, which featured Bobby on piano, me on guitar, Tony Scott on clarinet, John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums. The show had a short run—about 10 days, I think—because the theater reviewers came in and couldn’t figure out what we were doing.
Playing with Billie was like playing behind God. She had such innate talent and knew how to control it. There’s an art to that. For most artists at her level, that gift dates back to earlier days, when they had a terrible time and learned how to communicate with their audiences through their voice or horn.
JW: In 1949 you gigged and recorded with pianist Mary Lou Williams. Was she tough?
ML: Not at all. Mary Lou was a bop pianist but liked her music clear, clean and melodic. She was a wonderful lady. When I started playing with her, the trio was Mary Lou on piano, me on guitar and Beverly Peer on bass, who would eventually play with Bobby Short in the 1960s and 1970s.
One night in 1949 we were working at the Village Vanguard when a tall lanky kid came in with a sax in a grocery bag. He went over to Max Gordon who was napping on one of the seats during our set. The kid asked Max if he could sit in with us. Max told him it’s Mary Lou’s group and that he’d have to ask her.
So at intermission the kid asked Mary Lou if he could play with us. She said sure, that the trio would play a few tunes first and then she’d call him up to the bandstand. When we started again, after a few numbers, she called him up, and we started to play a standard. The kid starts playing 1,000 notes for every beat.
Mary Lou stopped playing in the middle of the song and closed the piano. "That's it," she said. "The set is over." She wasn’t into running scales. She liked ideas and the music to be straightforward. That saxophonist, of course, was John Coltrane. He had just arrived in New York. I think he recovered just fine from that night!
JW: You're the guitarist on Johnnie Ray's Cry, a #1 pop hit in late 1951. A big change from the jazz greats you were playing with at the time?
ML: Just another gig. It's funny, I recorded quite a bit in the early 1950s with Johnnie Ray but I can’t remember specifically what happened on that Cry session. Probably not much. Pop recordings lasted about three hours—two or three takes max per song. I was called to play on so many pop dates.
Johnnie Ray’s singing style is mocked today as being overly emotional, and Cry certainly sounds heavy by today's standards. But it was a huge hit at the time. Also, many people aren't aware of the jazz musicians who were on some of those Johnnie Ray dates. Musicians included me, Lucky Thompson on tenor, Ed Safranski on bass, Ed Shaughnessy on drums and Stan Freeman on piano.
There were no arrangements. We just had a bunch of chord changes written out and made everything else up as we went along.
The last recording I made with Johnnie Ray was around 1953, at New York's Great Northern Hotel on 59th St. They cleared out a lot of stuff in one of the ballrooms and made a recording studio out of it. But halfway through the session, Ray fell down and started convulsing. Not many people knew he had epilepsy. Shortly after that incident his agent moved him out to California to work in the movies.
JW: The following year you were playing with Charlie Parker. A big change, yes?
ML: Oh my, yes. My phone rang on a Tuesday—I remember it was a Tuesday. When I picked up the receiver, the voice at the other end said, "Mundy? This is Bird. I’m looking for a guitar player. Are you available on Friday?" I was shocked. Bird went on, saying he was playing a concert up at the Rockland Palace Dance Hall in Harlem.
I told him I’d make the date, he said great, and we hung up. The next three days were the longest in my life. I got the sweats. I had played with Bird in 1950, at Café Society with Tony Scott and others. But this was going to be a long concert with a large audience and major sidemen.
When I arrived at the dance hall that Friday, Bird had strings and an oboe behind him. But he had only eight or nine orchestral arrangements. He needed a small group to fill out the concert time on other numbers. That group was Walter Bishop, Jr. on piano, Teddy Kotick on bass, Max Roach on drums and me on guitar.
I must confess I was scared to death. I knew I had to show Bird the best I could play. The first song we played—Ornithology or Don't Blame Me, I can't recall—Bird ran through a couple of choruses and motioned for me to step forward and play one. After I played, I started backing up. But Bird waved me to go on, and I played four or five more choruses.
Bird wanted to see what I could do. When I was done, he smiled wide, exposing that gold tooth. When you saw that tooth, you knew Bird was real happy.
After the concert, Bird and I remained good friends. I lived with clarinetist Tony Scott at the time above the Café Society in Sheridan Square. Bird used to come down and hang out with Tony and me. We never talked about music. He always wanted to talk about books or chemistry or something else he was curious about. He was a great guy.
Tomorrow: In Part 3 of my four-part interview, Mundell talks about discovering Bill Evans, why they had to gig behind chicken wire, an incident between Ben Webster and a junkie on Broadway, and playing with Carmen McRae.
JazzWax tracks: Mundell Lowe's recordings with Cootie Williams in 1947 can be found here on Cootie Williams: 1946-1949. Mundell's 1948-1949 recordings with Billie Holiday are here on a terrific two-CD set, Billie Holiday: The Complete Original American Decca Recordings. Mundell's 1949-1950 recordings with pianist Mary Lou Williams are here on Mary Lou Williams: 1949-1951. His sessions with Billy Taylor, Jo Jones and Zoot Sims are on Billy Taylor: 1950-1952 here. Johnnie Ray's recordings of Cry and The Little White Cloud That Cried (Mundell was also on that hit-producing session) can be dowloaded from iTunes.
A little perspective: Pop music was dominated in the very early 1950s by a new style of singing that featured enormous vocal tension and faux sensitivity. Passion singers of the period included Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Kay Starr, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page and even Tony Bennett—all of whom dominated the charts in late 1951 and 1952. Johnnie Ray was at the forefront of this bluesy "crying" genre, and his Cry remains the best example of this short-lived trend. To hear Johnnie Ray and Mundell's guitar on Cry, go here.
Charlie Parker's Rockland Palace Concert is available here on a double-CD set, The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert.
JazzWax video clips: To see Mundell Lowe play on a May 1957 TV show called The Subject Is Jazz, go here. The clip of Billie's Bounce features Mundell, Vic Dickenson on trombone, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Paul Quinichette on tenor saxophone, Billy Taylor on piano, Ed Safranski on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums.