In the late 1950s, jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe was playing, arranging and contracting dates for jazz recordings, TV shows and commercials. Known for his impeccable chord changes and round, confident solo style, Mundell was on top of his game by 1960. But the music industry was changing, and Mundell grew increasingly frustrated by rock's growing influence.
In the final installment of my four-part interview, Mundell talks about the 1950s guitar scene, the making of Satan in High Heels, Carmen McRae and why he relocated to California. He also talks about Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby and resolves the question over who it was written for:
JazzWax: Was there cutthroat competition among jazz guitarists back in the 1950s?
Mundell Lowe: Goodness, there were so many great players. You had Tal Farlow, Chuck Wayne, Barry Galbraith, Billy Bauer, Sal Salvador, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall and on and on. But we were all friendly. There was plenty of work to go around.
JW: Even for gigs?
ML: If you walked into a club where another guitarist was playing, he'd motion you to come up and play. And you did. It wasn’t like it was later, when the opportunities dried up and jazz musicians were cutting each other’s throats for work. At that point, musicians suspected you were showing up just to take their gig away. It's hard to believe today, but everyone got along. It was a tight club, and we helped each other.
JW: Your score for Satan in High Heels remains one of the great movie soundtracks. How did your involvement come about?
ML: That was the first film I ever scored. The producer, Leonard Burton, called me up in 1962 and said he had made this skin flick, which by today’s standards I guess is pretty tame. He said he heard some music I wrote for the NBC Orchestra and that this film might be my cup of tea.
So I had a meeting in New York and ironed out the business end. Then we set up the dates. The film editor started putting film together and called me to spot the film and reels—which means to figure out where the music is going to go.
JW: What did you think when you saw the film?
ML: To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to think. It was pretty trashy. But I wanted to write for film and this one was as good as any to try out new things, musically. As I started to live with the film, the music I wanted to write came into focus. I decided I would do a jazz score, and the arrangements I created turned out to fit the film perfectly.
JW: You brought in some amazing talent for the date.
ML: I got the best guys I could find—Joe Newman, Doc Severinsen, Clark Terry, Urbie Green, Al Cohn [pictured] and others. It was an all-star group. Hey, they had to pay rent, too!
JW: What's it like to score a film?
ML: It's tricky business. It took me about three weeks to spot the film and write the score. Then the guys came in, we put the parts up on the stands and had to record so each song lasted a specific amount of time—not a second over or under.
But hitting the clock just right takes time, even for pros. You need to work out the tempos and then finish each piece of music at exactly the right moment in the film. There's no room for error.
JW: What was your biggest obstacle?
ML: Musician fatigue. By the time I scored the film, I knew from writing for commercials that trying to complete pieces of music according to a time sheet saps the concentration of musicians pretty quickly—no matter who the artist is. Too many takes to finish on the dot causes musicians to start screwing up.
So I decided to create breaks in extended pieces of music by overlapping the cues. A cue is a fancy movie term for the music you’re recording for a scene. So if I had a cue that ran 4 ½ minutes, I’d break it into three segments and write an overlap between the second and third segments.
JW: Explain a little.
ML: OK, if I had three separate segments that made up a 4 ½ -minute piece of music, I'd write an easy-going chord, like a C-7, at the end of each segment.
ML: At the end of the first cue, a sax, say, would run down the C-7 chord. Then we'd take a break. When we returned, the sax would then start the next segment by running down the same chord. This would allow the segments to be spliced together later seamlessly—without the music sounding chopped up or low-energy.
JW: Very cool. How did you figure that out?
ML: It's a trick I read in a great book on scoring for film by arranger Russ Garcia. The book is called The Professional Arranger Composer. I read it a couple of times and understood all the techniques I needed to score a film.
JW: You first recorded with Carmen McRae in 1954. She loved your pretty sound.
ML: We recorded and played together for years. After we recorded Bittersweet in May 1964, she said she was going to use me on guitar for all her dates. She had originally hired another big-name guitarist to play on Bittersweet. But he didn’t understand what Carmen was up to, so I got called in to replace him.
JW: Is being an accompanist tough?
ML: Not if you remember one rule. My philosophy has always been that when you’re playing with a singer or a sax, they are the feature. Period. You are supporting them. The minute you try to override them, you lose.
JW: You played behind so many singers. Which one had the quickest temper?
ML: Carmen. She was a very talented lady but she had bad management. Back in those days, agents had a lot of control. Carmen didn’t have enough strength and pull to take care of herself. When things got away from her, as they often did, she could become pretty tough.
JW: You left New York for good in 1965. Why?
ML: I began to see the handwriting on the wall. The business was going down. I had been at NBC for 13 years as a staff musician and they were getting antsy about retaining staff. Rock was coming in strong, and all the money was being diverted to promote it.
In early December 1965, my family went out to Los Angeles to spend the holiday season with Ed Shaughnessy’s family. When I flew out to join them, I ran into Jackie “Skippy” Cooper—you know, the child actor. By then he had become a big TV director for Screen Gems. Jackie said he had heard some music I had written and asked me to move out to Hollywood and score for television.
I asked my wife at the time what she thought. She said let’s do it. So we went back to New York, I packed up everything, put my family on a plane, and a week after Christmas 1965 we were living in California. I also went to work for Columbia Pictures and wrote for the movies.
JW: Was rock a factor in your decision?
ML: Rock was just something that producers dreamed up to make money. It had nothing to do with art. I’m glad I made the move out to California and avoided the whole rock scene. Rather than sell out, I was able to do what I wanted to do—and sleep at night.
JW: Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby—who was it written for?
ML: It was written for two Debbys—my daughter and Bill's niece. Both were named Debby. My Debby was 3 years old when Bill played in my trio with Red Mitchell in the early 1950s. He liked her very much. The tune was a melody Bill had been fooling around with since college. It was a foregone conclusion that he wrote the song with both of Debbys in mind.
Attention, Ohio: Mundell will be playing in Cleveland with guitarist Mike Magnelli, bassist Dave Morgan and drummer Val Kent on January 23d and 24th at Nighttown ...and in Dayton at Gilly's on January 26th.
JazzWax tracks: Satan in High Heels is one of the great sleeper jazz soundtracks and a must-own. The movie is camp and seedy, but Mundell's incidental music is dynamic and swinging from start to finish. Best of all, it's available as a download at iTunes. Search under Mundell's name.
Dig the personnel on the Satan in High Heels soundtrack: Joe Newman, Doc Severinsen, Clark Terry [pictured] (trumpets), Urbie Green and Buster Cooper (trombones), Jimmy Buffington (French horn), Ray Beckenstein (alto sax and flute), Walt Levinsky (alto sax and clarinet) Al Cohn, Al Klink (tenor saxes), Sol Schlinger (baritone sax), Eddie Costa (piano and vibes) Mundell Lowe (guitar), George Duvivier (bass) and Ed Shaughnessy (drums).
At iTunes, sample Coffee Coffee and the cha-cha, From Mundy On. Enough said.
JazzWax video clip: In this clip from a 1987 TV show, Mundell plays Waltz for Debby with guitarist Louis Stewart. It's my favorite clip of Mundell's, and I was saving it as a treat for today. I think it sums up Mundell's playing beautifully. Enjoy!