Mundell Lowe returned recently to the log cabin on the farm in southern Mississippi where he grew up, only to find the house is now a pile of logs. The man who owns the property is selling them off for six bucks apiece.
“I've got to get one of those,” Lowe says.
“How are you going to get it home?” retorts his wife, Betty.
The home she's talking about is a comfortable, modern two-story with a swimming pool in Tierrasanta. Betty's right that it would be difficult to bring a 100-year-old log on the flight back to San Diego, and even if they could, where would they put it? But his enthusiasm to possess a tangible piece of his rural childhood is an apt symbol of how much Lowe's early life shaped who he became.
Back home, sitting with Betty beside the pool under the shade of a patio umbrella on a warm but pleasant summer afternoon, Mundy—as everyone who knows him calls him—expresses regret at the loss of his boyhood home. “I was heartbroken,” he said, “because I wouldn't have any evidence of where I came from.” He explains how he went from “plowing a mule in Mississippi to 13 years at NBC in New York.” (And, I am tempted to add, to performing or recording with nearly every major figure in the history of jazz, from Billie Holiday to Sarah Vaughan to Charlie Parker.)
On Sept. 17, at Viejas Concerts in the Park, Lowe will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Diego Music Awards, an honor given in previous years to other San Diego-based jazz greats like Charles McPherson, Jimmie and Jeannie Cheatham and Barney Kessel, to whom Lowe presented the award at the 2000 ceremony. At 86, Lowe's still going strong, practicing every day and recording and playing regularly. Often listed among the greatest jazz guitarists of all time, his work as a performer, arranger and composer in concert, studio, film and television make him entirely deserving of the honor.
Pretty good for a kid who never even heard jazz while growing up in Laurel, Miss., during the “jazz age.” “There was no television and very little radio,” he said. “We used to meet at the house of a guy who had bought a Silvertone radio from Sears and tune in to the Grand Ole Opry. We'd hear Uncle Dave Macon, Sons of the Pioneers—stuff like that. It wasn't until I went to New Orleans that I heard other types of music.”
Lowe took an early interest in his sister's four-string tenor guitar. She taught him the F, C and G chords and how to strum simple country tunes they heard on the Grand Ole Opry. By the age of 8, Lowe had acquired a guitar of his own, to the dismay of his grandpa.
“My grandfather raised cows, pigs, horses, vegetables, fields of cotton and corn to bring in the little money we had. We all ganged around that old farm, my brothers and sisters and some of the other family, just to keep alive.
Grandpa wanted me out in the fields working with him, and I'd be out in the back room with the guitar trying to figure out another chord.”
Betty, who has been sitting beside him, listening, smiling, chimes in: “They used to hook Mundell to the clotheslines by a rope so he could have the run of the yard” but, she implies, not run away.
Betty Bennett was born in 1922, like her husband. Between them, they have 172 years of life and probably enough energy to go another 172. An excellent yet underappreciated jazz vocalist, Betty performed with her own who's-who of jazz, including prominent West Coast musicians like Stan Kenton and Cal Tjader. Mundell's calm, wise, slightly mischievous demeanor often lands him in the role of straight man to Betty's sassy interjections. But her witty commentary is delivered with a deep affection, an affection that seems to flow between them as effortlessly and subtly as ripples across the surface of the pool stirred up by the late-afternoon breezes.
Betty authored a highly regarded autobiography of her own life in jazz, so having her join the conversation about her husband's achievements adds not only the perspective of a loving partner, but also that of a sharp, literary observer. Mundell laughs at her comment. It illustrates his childhood restlessness.
“Yeah, I was a real devil,” he says.
Working harder than Lowe on his grandfather's farm were hired hands, all of them African-American. His grandfather was an anomaly for that time and place: He treated the workers fairly and taught his family not to judge based on race. “He was an extraordinary man. He knew the writer William Faulkner, and they were friends because they both thought alike about the races and about justice.”
Lowe credits his grandfather's attitude for shaping his own. Without the seeds of resistance to segregation planted in young Mundell's mind, it is unlikely the white farm boy from Mississippi would have gone on to perform and record with otherwise all-black ensembles during the height of New York's legendary jazz scene of the 1940s and '50s.At the height of the Depression, his family broke apart: his father struggling to make a living as a preacher, sometimes working for the Salvation Army; his mother and two sisters living in Mobile, Ala.; another sister and two brothers sent to an orphanage in Jackson, Miss. Mundell also went to Jackson, to look after his siblings in the orphanage, but lived with his aunt.
Betty points out that “they all did well in spite of their tragic background.”
It was in Jackson that Lowe switched from his old Sears Stella guitar to a flat-top round-hole Gibson. And it was during those Depression years that the teenage Mundell would hitchhike to places as far away as Nashville and New Orleans, his father hunting him down to drag him home.
Perhaps most important to his early development as a musician were his jaunts to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where he heard jazz for the first time, though, as Lowe remembers it, they didn't call it jazz: “We called it making up your own songs.” The black musicians at The Open Door club would let him sit in, and he played in “spasm bands,” groups formed from loosely organized street-corner meet-ups.
In 1939, at age 17, Lowe landed a spot in Pee Wee King's western swing band, appearing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, the radio show that had inspired him as a kid.
Within a few years, he was married to his first wife, who gave birth to his first daughter, and soon after that, the war intervened and Lowe was drafted into the Army. He trained at boot camp in Virginia and Georgia, and four months later he was fighting the Japanese army in Guadalcanal and later in the Philippines. It's not something he brings up, but he doesn't mind talking about it.
“That was somebody else, not me,” he said. “It's not personal for me. I don't understand the guys who sit around in uniforms and talk about the war. I've divorced myself from that whole idea.
“Part of the reason for that is, when I came home, I got to a point where I couldn't sleep. I was so hung up with the idea of running around trying to kill each other over there—and I've never said this to a writer before—that they sent me to a psychologist for six years in New York, and I finally got it squared away in my mind so I could live with it.”The other thing that helped him recover was the guitar. “I think that whole thing [war trauma] is what led to me to do all the studying I did with all the teachers I had. To get away from what I'd been through: Well, let's move forward.”
He had few opportunities to play while he was in the service but immersed himself in guitar again when he got out. He reconnected with the great producer John Hammond, whom he'd impressed in jam sessions before going overseas, which led to a gig with former Glen Miller drummer Ray McKinley.
After touring the U.S. with “Mac,” he worked with Benny Goodman and, from there, a succession of gigs with the great musicians of the time in top New York jazz clubs like the Village Vanguard, The Embers and Café Society, where he accompanied Billie Holiday. He recorded with Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Dinah Washington, Jo Jones and others. In the late 1940s, Lowe also helped launch the career of the great pianist Bill Evans.
In the 1950s, he moved into television—playing, composing and arranging for shows like The Today Show and The Kate Smith Hour. He began releasing albums as a solo artist, as well as performing on sessions with jazz and pop artists from Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. to The Everly Brothers and Jackie Wilson, to name a few.During the 1960s and '70s, he continued to record his own albums and perform in studio sessions and compose and arrange for television, winding up and eventually staying in Los Angeles, where he created music for shows like Hawaii Five-O and Wild Wild West. He also scored soundtracks for films, including the cult classic Billy Jack and Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
The '80s and '90s saw Mundell return to his first love: performing live. He served for several years as director of the Monterey Jazz Festival and toured and recorded with The Andre Previn Trio and with The Great Guitars group with Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis and Tal Farlow. It was at the end of the '80s when Lowe and Betty settled in San Diego, and he became a fixture on San Diego's jazz scene. Now, much of his legacy is being reissued, with hundreds of recordings he played on released during the past decade. He was honored this summer with a sold-out celebration of his life and music at Anthology and will perform at the San Diego Music Awards when he receives his honor.
How does it feel to be a legend?
“We were all just trying to pay the rent,” he said. “I'm convinced that history is only made after you guys write about it.”
And what does he think of winning the award? Betty answers for him: “It's better than a kick in the head.” Lowe just smiles and lets his sweetheart's joking stand as the last word.
Anyway, to him, it's probably just a gig. And that means he needs to get back in the house and practice to make sure he plays better tomorrow than he did today.