When it comes to the jazz guitar, few musicians around today have played with as many greats as Mundell Lowe. Now 85 years old, the guitar legend has performed and recorded with virtually everyone—including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Mary Lou Williams and Ben Webster. He’s also credited with discovering Bill Evans in 1949 and bringing him to the attention of Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews in the mid-1950s.
“Mundy,” as he’s known among friends and insiders, has one of the smoothest sounds in jazz. In addition to being one of the most sought-after session guitarists from the 1950s onward, Mundell is a fabulous arranger. You merely have to listen to his writing on the soundtrack Satan in High Heels or the album The Greatness of Joe Mooney. Mundell could write swinging scores for bands and pretty, tight charts for ensembles.
In recent years, Mundell has been traveling worldwide playing in clubs and recording for TV commercials, TV shows and the movies. I spoke with Mundell last week about his early years in New York, before his move to California in 1964. Here's Part 1 of my four-part series:
JazzWax: You grew up a country boy?
Mundell Lowe: Yes, I was born in 1922, in Laurel, Mississippi, which is about a two-hour drive north of New Orleans. I loved music and jazz from the time I could pick up a guitar. Farming wasn’t for me, so I dropped out of high school and ran away from home at age 16. I wanted to play music, and my dad wanted me to go to school.
When I left home I headed up to Nashville, which was about six hours north of us. My dad came to get me, but I ran away again, to New Orleans, which was about two hours to the south. Parents back then—like parents today, I suppose—have no idea what their kids really want to do in life.
In Laurel, running away from home was a shocking thing. There was no precedent for it. In our town, you grew up and went to work on a farm as soon as you could. No one left, let alone ran away.
JW: In 1942, when you joined the army, you had a career-changing encounter, didn’t you?
ML: Before I shipped out to the Pacific, I was stationed in Camp Plauche, up the Mississippi River in a Louisiana town called Harahan. That’s where I met producer John Hammond, who also was stationed there. John threw jam sessions in the enlisted men’s club and liked my playing so much that he wrote articles about me. He said I should look him up when I got out of the service. So after I got out in 1945, I sent John a brief telegram: 'Just discharged. Merry Christmas.'
The next thing I knew, John found out where I was and had me meet Ray McKinley, the drummer who had his own big band. I joined Mack in early 1946 and made my first record with him in March of that year.
JW: What did Ray McKinley teach you?
ML: Ray taught me a simple lesson: Always believe in yourself. During World War II, I had been in the South Pacific and the experience was miserable, as you can imagine. When I came back, I hadn’t played in some time and was musically insecure. Mack saw potential in my playing and became a father figure to me. Back then, I sure needed some fathering.
One night in 1946, Mack came over during an intermission, put his arm around my shoulder and said, 'Play what you want to play, not what you think you should play.' That was great advice. After that I started choosing chords and notes based on what I felt in my gut, without worrying about convention. I was with Mack off and on through the 1950s.
JW: Who taught you the most about music?
ML: Eddie Sauter, the arranger [pictured at top, left]. He was writing for Ray McKinley’s band when I joined. Eddie could hear things no one else could. Once, when I played down one of Eddie’s guitar parts, I told him it sounded like there were some wrong notes. Eddie said not to worry and to wait until I heard the recording back. So I learned the part, recorded it, and when the track was played back he was right. It sounded beautiful.
Later on, in 1951, I was in the Sauter-Finegan band. Hanging around with both Eddie and Bill Finegan was amazing. As arrangers, those guys were in their own league. Both of them had done a lot of studying. Bill had gone over to Paris when he was writing for Tommy Dorsey in the late 1940s and studied with Nadia Boulanger, the French composer and teacher.
I learned about arranging by listened to Sauter-Finegan orchestrations and by borrowing the scores and reading them down in my hotel room. They were tough to read at first, because both arrangers transposed all the parts on the score. It was like reading a book where each sentence is in a different foreign language.
For example, an alto sax is an E-flat instrument. When you’re writing for an alto sax, you have to transpose notes up a major sixth so that what the alto saxophonist sees and plays will come out in the key everyone else is playing. Different transpositions have to be made for different instruments.
When you see notes and keys all over the place, a score is tough to read and hear in your mind. I worked hard to read their charts until I could see a transposed note and hear in my head exactly what the instrument would play.
On the whole, I learned from Eddie how to write for brass, and Bill taught me how to write for woodwinds and reeds. I had both areas covered with those guys."
Tomorrow: In Part 2 of my four-part series, Mundell talks about his encounters with Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae—as well as the Johnnie Ray Cry and Little White Cloud That Cried sessions of 1951 that surprisingly featured several jazz greats.
JazzWax tracks: Mundell Lowe's earliest 1946 recordings with Ray McKinley and arranger Eddie Sauter can be found on two out-of-print CDs—Jiminy Crickets here and a Savoy release called Borderline here. The McKinley band is notable not only for the inclusion of Sauter but also clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and pianist Lou Stein.
JazzWax video clips: While I could not find clips of Mundell with the Ray McKinley's band, I did come across a wonderful 1954 clip of Mundell playing with Lee Konitz, Don Elliot, Warne Marsh, Billy Taylor and Ed Thigpen. You'll find it here.
Dig Mundell's thick, strong open chords behind the group—and then his bop solo with cool modern lines, leaving plenty of room for space in just the right places. Sweet.