by Len Lear
When Monnette Sudler, 57, was growing up in the Tioga/Nicetown section of North Philadelphia, she fell in love with jazz while listening to her great-uncle, Nathan, play the piano.
“I would sit on the floor at his feet and listen to his music,” said the Germantown resident. “He played by ear and would come play our baby grand piano.
“My mother played a little piano, too. She was so proud when she purchased it. She started me with piano lessons at age 8 from a teacher named Dr. Lewis. My stepfather had a couple buddies who would visit who played guitar [by ear as well]. I did ask them to teach me, but they declined because they were self-taught.”
That rejection just motivated Sudler to devote her life to becoming one of the area’s finest jazz exponents. Today she is known as a world-class jazz guitarist, but she also plays drums and piano, and she composes, arranges, sings and writes poetry. Also the creator of eight jazz albums, she and acclaimed saxophonist Lynn Riley will be “Celebrating Women in Jazz” on Friday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. as part of Woodmere Art Museum’s Friday Night Jazz concert series.
“Once I heard my great-uncle play, I would ask where I could find that music on the radio. My mother had a few recordings of Nat King Cole, her favorite, and Fats Domino, and I have had a few jobs outside of music. I had two sons to support once my marriage was done, so I worked as a cashier, bank teller, in mental health and administration. I still step outside the music box if I have to.
“Music is my ministry, though. Of my albums my favorite is ‘Time for a Change.’ My first guitar teacher was Carol Friedman. She worked at the Wharton Center at 22nd and Cecil B Moore Avenue (Columbia Avenue back then). She taught folk guitar, which I still love to play and incorporate into my music quite a bit.”
Early in her career, Sudler worked with vibraphonist Khan Jamal in the Sounds of Liberation. It would literally take an article all its own to list every jazz luminary she has played with since then, but I will mention just a few here: Kenny Barron, Sonny Fortune, Dave Holland, Freddie Hubbard, Hugh Masekela, Trudy Pitts, Odean Pope, Shirley Scott, Archie Shepp, Leon Thomas, Steve Turre, Grover Washington Jr. and Reggie Workman.
Sudler graduated from Roosevelt Junior High School and Germantown High School. She attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston for a summer program but could not continue because “my mother was in between financially; she made too much for me to get tuition assistance and too little to afford the cost.”
Much later Sudler did earn a degree in music from Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music, studying music therapy, composition and performance.
“My mother’s maiden name of Goldman came from my grandfather, who was African American. My grandmother was bi-racial. She told me her mother was a German woman who gave her to an African American woman to raise her because of the times back then.”
Sudler has performed for as few as 10 people and as many as 1000. Among other projects, she has been commissioned to compose music for the Philadelphia Jazz Project; Retro Love, the Kimmel Center Jazz residency; and Jazz Bridge Philadelphia Real Book I and II. She is currently in the process of completing the choral arrangement of her own composition, “Standing Up,” for the Anna Crusis Choir, an all-female ensemble.
“There is never a dull moment,” Sudler said. “My life is full of surprises. It really depends on the person’s desires as to which path they choose to follow. I haven’t always made the best choices, but there are no mistakes. I have learned from everything, made some wonderful relationships with many people, traveled the world and shared that with my family and my students. If I had to do all over again, I would be a musician again; no doubt about it.”
Sudler wanted to take the opportunity to mention her Aunt Marlene (Robertson), “who helped get me started on guitar, my son Erik Honesty and his clothing business, Culture Couture, and my son Lemar Honesty, who owns a business called Honesty Home Improvement.”
For more information, visit MonnetteSudlerMusic.com. You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org