A musician, Lowe started playing jazz guitar at his family’s farm in Shady Grove, Mississippi, at age 6, and created his own style and sound. “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,” he said in a recent interview. By 13, he was “running away from home” to play gigs on the road; his father, a Baptist minister, would “occasionally” go find him, bring him home, and lecture him about the dangers of …whiskey. By 16, Lowe was playing on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry radio show, but took time out to join the Army for World War II. After the war, he got a spot in Ray McKinley’s big band, playing New York City. Then he joined the Benny Goodman orchestra, and worked various clubs in New York, before a 15-year stint as a staff musician for the NBC TV network. On the weekends, or on extended leave from NBC, Lowe played with Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Bill Evans, Rosemary Clooney, Al Cohn, Carmen McRae, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Johnny Ray, and Lester Young, among others. But he was just getting warmed up.
By 1965, Lowe moved to Los Angeles, and wrote music for TV shows including Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, and The Wild Wild West, and the movies Billy Jack and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). He worked with Benny Carter, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Hodges, Peggy Lee, Fats Navarro, Quincy Jones, Barry Manilow, Herbie Mann, Tony Bennett, André Previn, and Dinah Washington. And in 2015, he even released an album, Poor Butterfly — when he was 93 years old. “Mundell was one of the most important guitarists in jazz history,” says Holly Hofmann, a flutist who worked with Lowe for 30 years — through this Thanksgiving. “He was musically ahead of his time and was one of the most generous artists in supporting females in jazz.” Meanwhile, Lowe’s body was trying to kill him: he survived cardiac problems, bladder cancer, kidney disease, even stage IV lung cancer. But he recently broke his hip, and that kept him down. “He was like the Energizer bunny, but he was fading the past two weeks,” said his stepdaughter, Claudia Previn Stasny. James Mundell Lowe died after less than a week in hospice care, on December 2, at 95.