Mundell Lowe got his start with bandleader and drummer Ray McKinley in 1946 and rapidly built a name for himself in the late 1940s. Between 1947 and 1952, Mundell played and recorded with a long list of top jazz artists, including Billie Holiday, Mary Lou Williams and Charlie Parker.
By 1953, Mundell was one of the most sought-after session guitarists in the business. During the 1950s, he recorded with the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Georgie Auld, Dick Hyman, Joe Wilder, Ruby Braff, Tony Scott, Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderley and Donald Byrd along with many others. He also began recording as a leader for Riverside Records and became the go-to guitarist of singers such as Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Lee Wiley, Chris Connor, Blossom Dearie and Sammy Davis, Jr.
In Part 3 of my four-part interview with Mundell, he talks about Bill Evans and Ben Webster:
JazzWax: You are often credited with discovering Bill Evans. How did that happen?
Mundell Lowe: I first met Bill when I got out of the army after World War II. I was in New Orleans and he was at Southeastern Louisiana University. My brother-in-law took me over to hear him. I loved Bill’s sound right away. When we met, I told him that when he graduated, he had to come to New York and that we’d gig.
JW: Did he take you up on your offer?
ML: Sure enough, as soon as he graduated in 1950 he called. I put together a trio—me, Bill and Red Mitchell on bass. We never recorded, though. Producers at the time weren’t interested. Can you imagine? I did record something Bill played for me on my little Webcore machine, which recorded onto a wire.
JW: It's hard to imagine Bill, his head over the keyboard, in a dive in the middle of nowhere.
ML: I know. What's worse, the people who were in those places couldn’t have cared less about what we were playing. For them, we were just there for background music while they got loaded and geared up for fights. One bar even had chicken wire around the stage and up to the ceiling so we wouldn’t get hit by flying beer bottles. It was like playing in a chicken coop. That was definitely weird.
JW: Why didn't the trio work out?
ML: When we returned to New York we couldn’t get work. We had to disband. Red joined Woody Herman. Bill went down to his mother’s place in Florida. And I picked up gigs and session work with Billy Taylor, Benny Goodman and Louis Prima.
JW: You were the one who told Riverside Records' producer Orrin Keepnews about Bill?
ML: By the mid-1950s, I signed with Riverside Records, and Orrin was a friend. I told him, “You need to hear this guy, Bill Evans. He plays wonderfully.” I knew that Orrin was trying to build a catalog for the label. He said, “OK, OK, send him over and I’ll listen to him.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Bill’s first album as a leader, New Jazz Conceptions, came out in late 1956. Up until that point, Bill had been a sideman and wasn't thought of as a leader by producers yet.
JW: You recorded with Ben Webster in the late 1950s. Big temper?
ML: Not with me. I recorded with Ben on his date, The Soul of Ben Webster for Verve, and he recorded with me on my date, Porgy & Bess: Mundell Lowe and His Orchestra for Camden. Both were done in July 1958.
Ben was fantastic. People said he had trouble getting along with others, but we liked each other very much. We used to hang out all the time, and Ben would play the most amazing stride piano for me.
JW: But he could be plenty tough, yes?
ML: Oh sure. One night Ben, Billy Taylor and me were talking in front of Birdland on 52d St. and Broadway. Out of the dark a junky came up to us, scratching his face and asked for money so he could get fixed. Ben told him to take a walk.
The guy continued as if he didn’t hear Ben or didn’t care what he had said. Ben told the guy again to split or he’d force him to. The guy was high and kept saying, “I have to get my soul together, you dig?”
Ben used to carry this big walking stick with a silver lion’s head on top. Eventually the guy got a little too close. Ben lifted the stick up and cracked the guy with the lion’s head. The guy went down like a sack. Then Ben turned to us and politely said, “Let’s go and get some coffee.”
JW: Yet he was such a tender player.
ML: Sure—and as a person, deep down. When Ben moved to Copenhagen in 1964, he used to call me every few months at four or five in the morning. He didn’t understand the time-difference thing. He’d be juiced and crying. He'd tell me how much he wanted to come home and how much he missed it here.
I told him to come on home. There was plenty of work. But he'd say no, that he couldn’t leave. That he was plenty busy. But so lonesome for home. It was so sad. Those calls would break my heart. He just had a better life over there and knew it. But he still had such nostalgia for his life here.
Tomorrow: In the final part of my four-part interview, Mundell talks about his swinging score for Satan in High Heels, Carmen McRae, and why he packed up his family in 1965 and moved to California.
JazzWax tracks: Mundell recorded frequently in the 1950s as a leader, as a session player and as a singer's accompanist.
Mundell's early 1950s Sauter-Finegan dates can be found on a number of CDs, inclduing Inside Sauter-Finegan. Mundell's first album as a leader, for RCA in 1954, is available only on a 10-inch LP—The Mundell Lowe Septet.
Mundell's recordings as a leader for Riverside Records include The Mundell Lowe Quartet (1955), Guitar Moods (1956), New Music of Alec Wilder (1956) and A Grand Night for Swinging (1957).
Interestingly, most of Mundell's Porgy & Bess (Camden) was recorded on July 16 and 17—five days before Miles Davis began recording Porgy & Bess with the Gil Evans Orchestra (Columbia). Mundell's session featured Art Farmer on trumpet, Don Elliott on mellophone and vibes, Tony Scott on clarinet and baritone saxophone, Ben Webster on tenor sax, George Duvivier on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. Unfortunately, the CD is out of print, but a used copy is going for around $70.
Mundell's two TV Action Jazz albums from 1959 and 1960 featuring Clark Terry, Donald Byrd, Eddie Costa, Jimmy Cleveland, Urbie Green, Herbie Mann and Tony Scott have been combined on one CD that's available here.
JazzWax video clips: Here's Mundell with the Billy Taylor All Stars in May 1958 playing Flying Home. That's Ben Webster on tenor, Buck Clayton on trumpet, Benny Morton on trombone, Billy Taylor on piano, Mundell on guitar, Eddie Safranski on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. How'd you like to follow Big Ben, Buck and Benny with a solo? Yikes! And how about Billy Taylor!
I've added this clip to my "Video" listings in the right-hand column under Mundell Lowe's name so you can access it any time.