Mundell Lowe, a jazz guitarist whose versatility and understated elegance led to assignments accompanying such performers as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra and even Marilyn Monroe, died Dec. 2 at his home in San Diego. He was 95.
He had cancer and complications from a broken hip, said a daughter, Debbie Lowe.
During a remarkably varied career that spanned eight decades, Mr. Lowe appeared at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s, performed with jazz giants Parker and Holiday in the 1940s, accompanied Sinatra, Monroe and the Everly Brothers in the 1950s and later composed music for a Woody Allen movie.
Mr. Lowe recorded more than 15 albums as a leader — most recently in 2015, when he was 93 — and appeared on hundreds of others as a sideman. He was a member of NBC's staff orchestra, which performed on the "Today Show" in the 1950s and early 1960s. He later became a fixture at film and television studios in California, writing music for such shows as "Hawaii Five-O," "Starsky & Hutch" and "The Wild Wild West" and for Allen's 1972 film "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)."
Mr. Lowe’s deepest musical love was always jazz, which he first heard as a child on the streets of New Orleans.
“He was, along with Barney Kessel, one of the most sophisticated guitarists in jazz,” pianist Mike Wofford told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Mundy was more interested in harmonic creativity than just traditional jazz soloing. He was also a wonderful arranger who did a lot of writing for big bands.”
Mr. Lowe had a subtle approach that meshed well with scores of performers, including singers Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae, bandleader Charles Mingus and entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and Marlene Dietrich.
Mr. Lowe was featured on many recordings, including several by Johnny Ray, a singer whose overwrought performances of sobbing ballads such as "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried" made him a huge star in the early 1950s.
Mr. Lowe was credited with discovering jazz pianist Bill Evans when the latter was a college student in Louisiana in the 1940s. Evans and Mr. Lowe later performed in a trio; its best-known composition, "Waltz for Debby ," was named in part for Mr. Lowe's daughter.
In 1959, Mr. Lowe performed on Monroe's vocal album, "Some Like It Hot," which he considered a forgettable experience. "All those movie stars think they can sing," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, "but I don't think they really can."
James Mundell Lowe was born April 21, 1922, in Laurel, Miss. His father was a farmer and Baptist preacher.
He grew up in a musical family and began playing a four-string guitar when he was 8, then switched to a full-size six-string guitar at 10. He was entirely self-taught.
“Living on a farm when you’re a kid, I discovered there were no teachers around,” he told the Union-Tribune last year, “so you had to kind of create things yourself.”
He began performing professionally at 13 and left home by 16 to work at the Grand Ole Opry and later in nightspots in New Orleans. For many years, his daughter Sharon Lowe said, he enrolled in schools to continue his education in music and other fields.
During World War II, Mr. Lowe served in an Army engineering unit in the Pacific and performed in officers’ clubs in his off-hours. After his discharge, he joined drummer Ray McKinley’s band and honed his skills as a composer and arranger.
He settled in California in 1965 and, in later years, taught film composition and served as the musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. He often worked with jazz pianist Andre Previn, who is also a renowned classical conductor and film composer. One of Mr. Lowe’s final performances was in April.
His first marriage, to Marjorie Hyde, ended in divorce. His second wife, Barbara Kahn, died in 1975.
Survivors include his wife of 42 years, jazz singer Barbara Bennett of San Diego (she was previously married to Previn); a daughter from his first marriage, Sharon Lowe of Whiting, N.J.; three children from his second marriage, Debbie Lowe of Frazier Park, Calif., Jessica Lowe of Santa Cruz, Calif., and Adam Lowe of San Diego; two stepdaughters, Alicia Previn and Claudia Previn Stasny, both of San Diego; two brothers; a sister; three grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandson.
Mr. Lowe was known for his easygoing manner and his vast store of musical lore. He got to know the alluring but troubled Holiday while playing at a New York jazz club in the 1940s.
"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," he recalled in a 2008 interview with the website JazzWax.com. "It was her Chihuahua. She took that dog everywhere."
In the early 1950s, Mr. Lowe recalled in a 2008 interview with JazzWax.com, he received a call from Parker, the innovative and volatile saxophonist known as "Bird," who hired him to be part of his band at a concert.
“I must confess I was scared to death,” Mr. Lowe said. “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.”
Mr. Lowe remained on friendly terms with Parker, Mingus and other musicians many people found difficult. But one person he could never get along with was the demanding clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman.
“I worked with him five times,” Mr. Lowe said. “He fired me three times, and I quit twice.”
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