Trailblazing jazz guitarist Monnette Sudler has died at 70

Monnette Sudler in her Germantown apartment. (Alex Lewis for WHYY)

Monnette Sudler in her Germantown apartment. (Alex Lewis for WHYY)

Monnette Sudler, a longtime Philadelphia musician known as the “queen of jazz guitar,” has died. The Germantown native passed away on Sunday at the age of 70.

Sudler has been a fixture of the Philadelphia jazz scene for decades, starting in the 1970s when she played with the groundbreaking Sounds of Liberation ensemble, with its blend of free jazz, spiritual jazz, and funk. In 2019 the group’s first “lost” LP was reissued by Brewerytown Beats.

In a 2019 interview with Jennifer Lynn of WHYY-FM, Sudler said the Sounds of Liberation was a form of social activism.

“We did a lot of community events, outdoor festivals. We went into the prisons and did things there,” she said. “At that time it was all about Black empowerment and lifting up the community.”

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Since then she has played with the giants of jazz, including Grover Washington, Jr., Hugh Masekela, and Archie Schepp. Sudler said she was influenced by artists like Wes Montgomery and the Brazilian guitar player Bola Sete.

Sudler was born in 1952 and started learning piano at her mother’s encouragement. When her stepfather brought home a guitar, her mother disapproved, believing the guitar would lead her to rock and roll.

“She kept hiding it from me,” said Sudler in a 2020 interview. “She kept putting it in the closet.”

Sudler first learned to play folk music from her aunt, who taught music at the Wharton Centre on what was then Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia (since changed to Cecil B. Moore Avenue). It has recently been demolished.

Sudler started studying music at the Berklee College of Music Boston, and later earned a degree in music from Temple University, in 2003.

Mark Christman, founder of the Ars Nova Workshop, a presenter of new music, said Sudler was a “force in Philadelphia.”

“That trajectory from those early recordings of a young, talented woman in jazz in Philadelphia, with the Sounds of Liberation, you see this amazing career in which she’s collaborating with Freddie Hubbard and David Murray and Sam Rivers, and playing on the Newport stage,” said Christman. “Clearly from her body of work this is a musician’s musician, the person you call to collaborate with.”

Later, in 2009, she organized and hosted the Philadelphia Jazz Summit, a congregation and showcase of outstanding guitarists from a range of genres, including rock, country, folk, and jazz. The Summit continued annually for 10 years.

“She was really important for carving a space for women musicians in Philadelphia and beyond,” said choreographer and longtime friend Germaine Ingram. “Her Guitar Summit was one of the places where she featured the musical prowess of women, especially guitarists. She sponsored that very often on a dime in a wish for several years.”

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Around the time she started the Summit her health was severely hampered by deteriorating lungs. She was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes scarring of the lungs. At its worst, she was on an oxygen tank 24 hours a day.

In 2013 she had a double lung transplant. A few months later, with her fingers still slightly numb from surgery, Sudler jumped back into organizing concerts and performing again.

Sudler released her last album, “Stay Strong,” in the fall of 2021. Last May she was the honoree of the Ars Nova Workshop fundraising gala, which she attended virtually.

On Monday, the day after Sudler’s passing, her family and friends began funeral and memorial arrangements, which are yet to be finalized.

“That’s been the major focus of today to consider what the final arrangements will be,” said Ingram on Monday. “Recognizing the extensive community of people who will want to pay their tribute to Monnette.”

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