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Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Guitarist Monnette Sudler

Michael Donnelly
Monnette Sudler

In 1992, Jack Lloyd, entertainment writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “A funny thing happened to Monnette Sudler on her way to becoming a folk singer.” That “funny thing” was her immediate induction in the early 1970s into the cutting-edge, free-jazz funky group “Sounds of Liberation” with fellow Germantownians vibist Khan Jamal and saxophonist Byard Lancaster.

This group’s recordings were just rescued and re-released by Brewerytown Records. Very heady company for an emerging guitarist, singer, and composer.

Sudler said, “The Sounds of Liberation inspired me… the times were amazing and crazy. Part of it was my naiveté. But I just minded my own business and stayed in my lane, focused on the music… Khan encouraged me to get gigs on my own instead of waiting for people to call.”

It was great advice that guitarist, composer, and singer Monnette Sudler took to heart. Looking over her musical history is like gazing into so many unique musicians with their own musical styles and temperaments: The mbaqanga music of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the smooth jazz of saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., the avant garde jazz of saxophonist Odean Pope, the straight ahead jazz of bassist Reggie Workman, and the sensitive accompaniment to poets like Sonia Sanchez are among the musicians she’s collaborated with and genres she’s comfortably settled into and excelled. From the beginning of her career, she had no fear of adapting to the moment and making it hers wherever she was. And it paid off. Quickly, Monnette was snapped up into the New York loft scene and ended up with a free jazz stint at the Newport Jazz Festival with Sam River’s group.

It is astonishing how protean Sudler has been all her life, never afraid to try something new and put her feelings out to the public through her music. In 1999, the guitarist and composer set out to shake the world with poet Trapeta B. Mayson to create and perform a four-scene poetic play called “Makin’ a Scene” about women’s empowerment at the Painted Bride. In a Philadelphia Daily News interview, Monnette Sudler said, “It’s not about male-bashing, it’s becoming aware of you as a woman, and for the family, children, fathers, brothers, husbands, to become aware of what women think about and go through.”

Throughout her life, Sudler has never been one for egocentrism, and her giving spirit is apparent. Through a grant from the American Composer’s Forum, she developed a curriculum called “Mend the Mind, Free the Soul,” which incorporated music and music education into the Children Achieving through ReEducation (CARE) program. And working with children led her to be chosen by the Philadelphia Opera Company to compose music based on the poems of children in a program of Art Sanctuary.

Everyone by now knows by now that Sudler founded and is the musical director of her yearly Philadelphia Guitar Summit, which features notable guitarists from around the globe who play and teach workshops. Her 9th summit’s theme was “Strumming for Social Change” and featured many Philly ace guitarists.

During the pandemic year, Sudler said she thought she was “losing her mind. I couldn’t focus.” She felt like she had “been locked down, just looking through my window.” But she got it together and once she, “learned how to be by myself, I wrote quite a bit.”

In fact, her new album, Stay Strong, is about our pandemic year and her thoughts about herself, the country, peace, and love. On March 24, 2021, Sudler gathered the tribe of musicians who recorded with her for a zoom CD party. The jazz group surrounding her—Brady Bunch style on the screen—just nodded and smiled through the infectious grooves and soulful singing.

On her song “I Can’t Breathe,” Sudler commented “America is suffocating all of us.” On the tune “Standing Up,” everyone knew what she meant when she sang the lyrics “standing up, though my knees get a little bit weak sometimes.” After listening for an hour, the musicians on the Zoom were visibly sighing at the power of the music they’d just heard.

Bassist Gerald Veasley said softly, “Monnette leaves the room.” Drummer Byron “Wookie” Landham heartfully said, “There was no me without you.” Here’s hoping that the gathering was recorded and will be available to view, because it demonstrates wonderfully why guitarist, composer, lyricist, and singer Monnette Sudler is a Hometown Hero. All her prodigious work is available on online, including her new album—Stay Strong, a powerful mix of political drama wedded to an infectious groove, which includes a dynamic arrangement of the gospel song “O Mary Don’t You Weep.”

In 1977, Philadelphia’s premier jazz writer, Nels Nelson, prognosticated, “Monnette Sudler is not only a superior musician, but a mature and self-assured young woman with an uncommon lock on the future.” How right he was.