Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Monnette Sudler, Philly jazz guitar great, has died at 68

The musician who was known as Philadelphia's "First Lady of Guitar," got her start in the 1970s with the avant-funk ensemble Sounds of Liberation and went on to a five-decade career.

Philadelphia jazz guitarist Monnette Sudler in  2014.
Philadelphia jazz guitarist Monnette Sudler in 2014.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Monnette Sudler, 68, the Philadelphia jazz guitar virtuoso whose career began with the early 1970s avant-garde ensemble Sounds of Liberation and carried on for five decades as a bandleader and backing musician for acts including Grover Washington Jr., David Murray, and Archie Shepp, has died.

Ms. Sudler died on Sunday at her home in Germantown. Her brother Truman Sudler Jr. said that the cause of death was blood cancer. She had received a lifesaving double-lung transplant in 2013 after being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.

Ms. Sudler cited Wes Montgomery, Brazilian guitarist Bolo Sete, and South Philly’s Pat Martino as influences. Her precise, forceful playing as both a rhythm guitarist and as a soloist was often compared to George Benson.

Though she was troubled with health problems in recent years, she continued to record and perform regularly in the Philadelphia area.

Drummer Dwight James, who played with Ms. Sudler for more than 50 years, called her Philadelphia’s “First Lady of Guitar.”

She recorded several albums under her own name, starting with Brighter Days for You, which was released by the Danish SteepleChase label in 1977. Last year, that company issued In My Own Way, a recording made in Denmark in 1978, and Ms. Sudler also released Stay Strong, a collection of new songs that reflected on life during the first year of the pandemic.

Her mastery and versatility was well-known to Philadelphia audiences, in live performances and recording projects like the 1980s Philly-centric project Change of the Century Orchestra.

She also played bass and piano, composed, sang, was a music teacher, and wrote poetry, which can be heard on her 2018 album This is How We Get Through, a collaboration in 2013. with Philadelphia Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson.

Ms. Sudler often served as a mentor to young musicians, and founded the Philadelphia Guitar Summit in 2009.

“She ushered me into the Philadelphia jazz scene.” said bassist Gerald Veasley, founder of Jazz Philadelphia. “Once I worked with Monnette, she put her stamp of approval on me.”

“She has an expansive vision beyond her love of the guitar. She was so free in her thinking about the music. She could play straight ahead, or she could play avant-garde. She was really a kind of Renaissance woman.”

Veasley called Ms. Sudler “our treasure.”

During COVID, Philadelphia bassist Reggie Workman had Sonny Rollins as a guest at a New School class in New York he was teaching on Zoom. When Rollins saw Ms. Sudler on the screen, Veasley said, “He got all excited. ‘Monnette, so good to see you.’ I was impressed.” Ms. Sudler was on the Zoom call because she heard Rollins was going to speak.

Ms. Sudler was born Monnette Goldman and grew up in North Philadelphia. Her mother, Lea Goldman, who sang in church, married Truman Sudler when Monnettte was 5. She studied piano and wanted learn clarinet, she explained in a 2016 interview, “but my grandfather said playing clarinet would make my lips hard.”

She switched to guitar at 15, studying under a number of teachers, from whom she learned British invasion rock and Brazilian bossa nova. Later, she studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and earned a graduate degree from Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance.

By the time she was 19, she was playing with vibraphonist Khan Jamal (then known as Warren Cheeseboro) in Sounds of Liberation.

“I called Khan and asked him if he wanted to jam,” Ms. Sudler told The Inquirer in 2019. “He brought his vibes over and we played in my mom’s living room. That’s how it started. We all lived within a few blocks of each other, and we started rehearsing in Khan’s garage after that.”

» READ MORE: Marshall Allen’s 95th birthday present? The reunion of Sounds of Liberation.

“I first saw her walking down the street carrying her guitar case in Germantown,” said James, the Sounds of Liberation drummer, describing the beginning of a 50-year friendship. “And then one day I walked into Khan’s house and there she was at rehearsal. And that band” — which also included saxophonist Byard Lancaster — “became Sounds of Liberation.”

Ms. Sudler blazed a trail in a jazz world dominated by men. “Back then, not too many people were seeing a woman playing with all-male bands. She was young, and probably nervous. She hadn’t been playing that long. But then she really started to grow,” James said.

“When I get up in the morning, I don’t think, ‘I’m a female guitarist, how is the world gonna look at me?’ ” Ms. Sudler told WHYY in a 2017 interview. “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.”

“Her sound was different than any other guitarist,” said James. “I don’t know how many people have ever heard her sing, but she had a light, pretty voice that fit perfectly with her guitar. She had a sound that was her own. It was melodic at times, but it did whatever the composition needed it to. The guitar always found its place.”

Sounds of Liberation’s music pushed boundaries and reveled in musical experimentation, mixing free jazz, roughhouse funk, and socially conscious politics into a heady brand of self-described “Black Liberation Music.”

“During that time, that’s what was going on,” Ms. Sudler said in 2019. “The Black Power movement, community festivals, things like that.”

The band continued to play together sporadically over the years, with Ms. Sudler taking over as music director as well as guitarist when they traveled to France to perform in 2004.

In 2019, the reunited band played Union Transfer and Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia to celebrate the release of Untitled (Columbia University 1973), a lost live album found in James’ basement and a reissue of the original 1972 Sounds of Liberation album. Both were released by Brewerytown Beats record store owner Max Ochester on the Dogtown label.

Later in 2019, the group recorded a new album at Montgomery County College in Blue Bell with Ms. Sudler’s friend, saxophonist David Murray. That music has not yet been released, except for a video of a song called “SOL,” which Ms. Sudler wrote the night before the recording session.

“It’s an incredible song,” says Ochester. “It’s super-catchy and very much in the vein of what the band did back in the day. My favorite thing about Monnette was her ability to come up with songs and catchy tunes. She worked very quickly, too.”

As a guitarist, Ms. Sudler was equally adept as a rhythm player and a soloist, a skill set she displayed in a Quarantine concert she performed from her Germantown apartment during lockdown in 2020.

“One of those skills is extremely self-effacing,” said Aaron Luis Levinson, the Philadelphia record producer who consulted on the Sounds of Liberation sessions in 2019. ”And the other is totally self-exploratory. And she could do both.”

Ms. Sudler’s death, Levinson said, represents “a great loss in the world of spiritual jazz. Which is not a style, really. It’s a life lived. It’s a small world, but in this really small world, it doesn’t get any bigger than Monnette. Our universe has been knocked out of alignment.”

Ms. Sudler is survived by her brothers Truman Sudler Jr. and Duane Sudler, her sons Erik Honesty and Lamar Honesty, and three grandchildren.

There will be a celebration of life at 11 a.m. Sept. 3 at First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144. A viewing from 9-11 a.m. will precede the service.