Musician and composer Monnette Sudler is Philadelphia’s ‘First Lady of Guitar’

     Monnette Sudler talks about her music and her life in her apartment in Germantown.  (Alex Lewis for NewsWorks)

    Monnette Sudler talks about her music and her life in her apartment in Germantown. (Alex Lewis for NewsWorks)

    Monnette Sudler says the guitar feels less like an instrument and more like a part of her body.

    Monnette Sudler says the guitar feels less like an instrument and more like a part of her body.

    “Because now, at this point in my life, when I pick it up, it just feels natural,” she says from her apartment in Germantown. “I’m supposed to hold it, and it’s really just an extension of myself now. Whatever I’m trying to convey — if it’s excitement, or if it’s love or blues, happy times or gratefulness — I believe I convey that.”

    Sudler started on the piano, but, when she picked up the guitar at 15, she never looked back. Although she’s primarily a jazz player, she’s also dabbled in the avant-garde and funk. In her 40-plus year career, she’s performed around the world and with Grover Washington, Reggie Workman and other jazz legends. She also has numerous releases to her name, several of which are on the prestigious label Steeple Chase Records.

    But although she’s enjoyed a prolific and successful life as a musician, there’s a stigma that lingers.

    To illustrate, she shares this anecdote:

    “This guy, he sat with me at the Clef Club. We introduced ourselves and I said, ‘[I’m] a jazz guitarist’ and he sat back, and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, you don’t look like a jazz guitarist!’ And I’m like, ‘OK, what does that look like?’ So people always kinda say little stupid things like that.”

    Especially when she was coming up in New York’s loft scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, Sudler says bands hesitated to hire a woman, fearing they would cause trouble or not carry their weight.  

    She saw this as an opportunity to strike out on her own.

    “When I get up in the morning, I don’t think, ‘I’m a female guitarist, how is the world gonna look at me?’ The only thing I can do as a musician is to just do my best, be true to myself and let everybody else be who they are.

    “Sometimes you just have to make your own way in the scheme of things,” she says. “And I feel like I’ve done that to the best of my ability at this point.”

    ‘Every note is a gem’

    On a snowy winter evening, Sudler played a gig with old friends from the Philadelphia scene at SOUTH, a spacious New Orleans-inspired jazz club on North Broad Street. The venue was filled with her friends and fans, many of whom have admired her for years.

    Gerald Veasley, a well-respected jazz bassist, says Sudler hired him for his very first gig.

    “The very first person to give me a chance to play in her band, so I’ll always thank her for that,” he says. “I think she has an elegance to the way she plays. Every note is a gem. And her sound is just crystal clear and beautiful.”

    Thaddeus Govan, sitting at a table near the front of the stage, was a huge fan of Sudler’s for years before discovering they grew up near each other in Germantown. He started taking guitar lessons from his hero in 1985.

    “Monnette has a rich, thick, warm round sound, which is unusual in today’s world,” he says waiting for her set to start. “It’s all about her artistry, her flavor, her phrasing.”

    Other fans simply call her Philadelphia’s “First Lady of Jazz.”

    The blessings of friends and health

    Sudler had a health scare in 2013. She was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which weakened her immune system and her voice. But her fans and friends across Philadelphia and in the jazz community came to her aid. They organized a huge benefit concert and raised enough money for her to receive the double lung transplant that saved her life.

    “I just think it’s a miracle. and it’s a total blessing,” she says, reflecting on the outpouring of support. “Music is a healing force, it just really is. And for me, it calms my spirit, it gives me hope.”

    After recovering from her surgery, Sudler has been as prolific as ever. She’s recording, composing music for the theater, and continuing to curate her annual Philadelphia Guitar Summit that celebrates different approaches to the guitar.

    “Mostly, I try to keep it diverse and have people that are performing that are really different. I’ve just had a lot of really wonderful people perform, and they all really get a kick out of hearing the other musicians and interacting, and just learning about their style of music.”

    This year, the Guitar Summit features three divergent groups: Gloria Galante’s Jazz Harp Ensemble, M’oud Swing and the Portraits of Space and Time Quartet. Nasir Dickerson will also perform a solo set on the kora, an African harp.

    The walls of Sudler’s apartment in Germantown are covered with photos of her musical heroes — many are also her peers. They’re evidence of the self-determination that’s driven her forward, ever since being turned down for gigs earlier in her career. And she now feels more inspired than ever.

    “You can’t lie about music,” she says. “ The things that you experience automatically come out in your music in some way.”

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