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Monnette Sudler, trailblazing guitarist and Philadelphia jazz luminary, has died at 70

Monnette Sudler
Courtesy of William Erik Honesty
Monnette Sudler in the early 1970s.

Monnette Sudler, a virtuoso guitarist who straddled the post-bop mainstream and a searching yet rooted avant-garde, earning an exalted stature in her native Philadelphia, died on Sunday morning at her home in the city’s Germantown – Penn Knox neighborhood. She was 70.

Her son Erik Honesty said the cause was cancer. Sudler had also suffered from a serious lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which led to a double lung transplant in 2013.

Sudler was a composer and a singer as well as a guitarist, but it was her brisk and super-articulate style on the instrument that forged her reputation. She favored a clean tone and rhythmically assertive phrasing, in the mode of precursors like George Benson. But emerging as she did during the 1970s, a period of seismic upheaval in improvised music, she made her first major impression in the ranks of a spirit-minded free-funk group called Sounds of Liberation.

The ensemble, which also included saxophonist Byard Lancaster and vibraphonist Khan Jamal, released one album on a shoestring label, earning cult status in the rare-groove discourse. A 2010 reissue brought the band’s achievement back into wider circulation, helped by a resurgence of interest in ‘70s Black expression and so-called “spiritual jazz.” A previously unissued live recording — Untitled [Columbia University 1973], released by Dogtown Records in 2019 — further burnished the legend, with Sudler duly credited for her integral role in the music.

But her legacy can hardly be limited to the enlightened squall of Sounds of Liberation, which amounts to a mere sliver of her output. Her first album as a leader, Time For a Change, appeared on the Danish label Steeplechase in 1976. The title track, a Sudler original, shifts easily from crisp funk to a gliding swing feel, as if to emphasize a continuity between the two.

Time for a Change

This was characteristic: as a composer, Sudler often found ways to reconcile disparate elements of style. “Natural Accurrence,” a kinetic highlight of her second Steeplechase album, Brighter Days for You, rests on a shapeshifting groove studded with frantic syncopations. The song came with topical pedigree: Sudler composed it in response to an infamous 1978 confrontation between the Philadelphia police and the MOVE organization in the Powelton Village houses. (On the album, it falls on the track listing between “To Be Exposed” and “Rightousness.”)

Natural Accurrance

Born Monnette Goldman on June 5, 1952, Sudler grew up in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Nicetown-Tioga. Her mother, Lea Goldman, worked as a secretary at the Frankford Arsenal, where she met Truman Sudler, Sr. They married and had three sons, Truman, Warren, and Duane.

Truman Sudler, Jr. and Duane Sudler survive her along with her two sons, Erik Honesty and Lamar Honesty, and three grandchildren.

Monnette’s exposure to music as a child was ambient but formative: her mother sang classical and church music, and her uncle Nathan was a pianist who specialized in jazz and showtunes, often working in local clubs. She took piano lessons herself for several years, starting at age 8, but always strained against the drudgery of practice.

“I fought against the piano,” she told W. Royal Stokes for his 2005 book Growing Up with Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk about Their Lives and Careers. “A couple of years later I was given this guitar and couldn’t play it and my mother used to hide it from me because she wanted me to play piano and do more classical things. She’d put it in the closet and every now and then I’d go pull it out and she’d hide it again.”

By age 15, able to make some of her own decisions, Sudler began taking guitar lessons from a succession of local teachers. Her earliest training was in an acoustic folk vein, and she gravitated less to the ascendent British Invasion and psychedelic rock of the era than to the fingerstyle guitar traditions of Brazilian music, as well as jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery.

Sudler became an improvising musician almost by happenstance, after a mutual acquaintance introduced her to Jamal. “Khan came over to my house and brought his vibes and we just played all day,” she told Stokes. “We met a couple other people and for the next month we just played music all day long.”

Jamal died earlier this year, at 75. “Khan had a very warm sound,” Sudler told me after he passed. “He liked to play avant-garde, but then he was also very melodic. I would say he was versatile in his approach to music, which is something we both developed working in the same group.”

Sudler studied at the Berklee College of Music and later Temple University, where she graduated with a degree from the Boyer College of Music and Dance. During the late-‘70s loft scene era in New York, she played with the Sam Rivers Big Band, drummer Sunny Murray, saxophonist David Murray (no relation), and countless others. Later came a stint with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The pioneering aspect of Sudler’s achievement as a woman in jazz was recently acknowledged by the organization Mutual Mentorship for Musicians, which commissioned her to present new work for its inaugural M3 Festival.

Monnette Sudler
Michael Donnella
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In her local jazz ecosystem, Sudler was known not only as a fearsome musician but also a mentor, an advocate and a scene-builder. “I’m eternally grateful for her ushering me into the Philadelphia jazz scene,” bassist Gerald Veasley wrote today on Twitter. Among the others who expressed similar sentiments were saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and bassist Anthony Tidd.

“Monnette was an inspiration to me as a young guitarist in Philadelphia,” Kurt Rosenwinkel tells WRTI, recalling her kindness and encouragement. “Seeing her play made me want to play jazz guitar, that soft sound and syncopated rhythm. I always felt proud to have had her as one of my first jazz guitar heroes.”

Sudler founded the Philadelphia Guitar Summit, and ran it for nearly a decade. She was deeply involved in music education, and in a range of interdisciplinary work — most notably through a long-running collaboration with Philadelphia’s former Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. In addition to their play Makin’ a Scene, presented at the Painted Bride Art Center, they released an album titled This is How We Get Through in 2018.

The following year, Sudler performed solo in WRTI’s studio, singing and playing acoustic guitar. Her version of the standard “Easy Living” captures the intimate warmth of her style, both in vocal and instrumental terms.

Monnette Sudler, "Easy Living" (Live at WRTI)

A piece titled “Easy Living” — not the songbook standard but an easeful calypso — also appears on In My Own Way, an album originally recorded for Steeplechase in 1978 and finally released just last year. Sudler also ushered in a brand-new release last year: Stay Strong, a byproduct of pandemic-era determination. Among the memorable pieces on the album, which features veteran collaborators like Veasley and drummer Webb Thomas, is a calmly unfolding ballad titled “Back to Living Again.”

Nate Chinen has been writing about jazz for more than 25 years.