Q&A: Guitar great Mundell Lowe on jazz
By George Varga | 8 a.m. March 19, 2016
Mundell Lowe is surely not the only veteran jazz guitar star to have released a new album last year. But he is surely the only one to have done so at the age of 93 — and the only one who counts Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Marlene Dietrich, Jackie Wilson and the Everly Brothers among his many famed past collaborators.
A longtime San Diego resident, Lowe turns 94 on April 21. He performs April 1 at the Handlery Hotel’s 950 Lounge in Mission Valley and April 24 at a birthday concert in his honor at Dizzy’s in Mission Beach. Both venues are open to all ages.
The Mundell Lowe Trio, with Rob Thorsen & Jim Plank
When: 5:30 p.m. April 1
Where: 950 Lounge, Handlery Hotel, 950 Hotel Circle N., Mission Valley
Admission: Free; no cover charge
Phone: (619) 298-0511
Mundell Lowe’s 94th Birthday Celebration, with Jaime Valle & special guests
When: 7:30 p.m. April 24
Where: Dizzy’s, 4275 Mission Bay Drive (inside San Diego Jet Ski Rentals), Pacific Beach
Phone: (858) 270-7467
“Mundy is, in one person, the history of the jazz guitar, with special attention to modern harmony,” said top flutist Holly Hofmann, a longtime friend and collaborator, who books the 950 Lounge. “He is inspirational.”
As his new album, “Poor Butterfly,” attests, this soft-spoken Mississippi native remains a master of musical sophistication and concision. His playing is both eloquent and earthy, as befits a musician whose record label is called Two Helpins’ O’ Collards.
His memory is, with few exceptions, remarkably sharp.
Lowe, who did his most recent concert tour of Europe last year, demonstrated as much in a recent 90-minute interview. He spoke from the two-story Tierrasanta home he shares with his wife, noted jazz singer Betty Bennett, and their 12-year-old dachshund, Bernie.
Q: How often do you pick up the guitar at home?
A: Every morning. I make it a point to play for at least 35 or 40 minutes. I do it just to keep the muscles toned up, so when you get on the bandstand at night, things don’t feel strange. I do a lot of meandering around, so that my ears can catch up with my hands. And, at the end, my hands feel ready to play.
Q: What does music mean to you now that it didn’t mean when you were 20, 60, or last month, for that matter?
A: Well, the basic thing with music has always been the same. It depends on your own development and what you’re dealing with. It’s like anything else. I started off with country music. And, as I learned more about music, I got into popular music and jazz, which led me to the point where I am now.
Q: Do you remember the first song you learned as a kid?
A: It was “Red River Valley,’ which was a song all of the country players were doing at the time.
Q: Was there a turning point for you as a guitarist when you were a kid?
A: Yes. The minute I switched from the 4-string tenor guitar, which my older sister gave me when I was 8, to a 6-string guitar when I was 10 or 11. I noticed that — every time I picked it up — I’d learn something else on my own. … Living on a farm when you’re a kid, I discovered there were no teachers around, so you had to kind of create things yourself.
Q: How rural was your hometown?
A: It was a little place called Shady Grove, about five miles north of Laurel, Mississippi. It had a filling station, a school and a grocery store. That was about the extent of Shady Grove, other than the farms around it.