Underwood graduated from The Choate School in 1957 and Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in composition in 1961 and a master’s degree in composition at UC Berkeley in 1966. He began his career by playing San Francisco Bay Area coffeehouses and bars with his improvisational group, the Jazz Mice, in the mid-1960s before he became a member of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in 1967 for their third studio album, We’re Only in It for the Money. He speaks on Uncle Meat; on the track “Ian Underwood Whips It Out” he relates how he first met Zappa and demonstrated his capabilities on the saxophone at Zappa’s invitation. Underwood later worked with Frank Zappa on his solo recordings, including 1969’s Hot Rats. He married Ruth Komanoff (Underwood), marimbist/percussionist from the Mothers of Invention in May 1969. Underwood left the Mothers of Invention in September 1973. He and Ruth divorced in 1986.