Long considered to be Philadelphia’s “First Lady of Guitar”, Monnette Sudler transitioned on Sunday at the age of 70.
The music of native Philadelphia jazz guitarist, vocalist, composer and educator Monnette Sudler spans a wide variety of genres, styles and approaches, from avant-garde to straight ahead jazz, R&B, funk and soul to blues and poetry. As Philadelphia’s “First Lady of Guitar” and pillar of the local music scene, she passed away on Sunday at age 70 after a long health battle.
While still in her teens she helped found the jazz collective Sounds of Liberation with such legendary artists as vibraphonist Khan Jamal and saxophonist Byard Lancaster; the ensemble blended spiritual jazz, funk and socially conscious ideas aligned with the Black Arts Movement. Decades later she was instrumental in reforming the band for a series of acclaimed performances. In the 1970s, she attended Berklee School of Music and in the 1980s, Temple University.
Nels Nelson, a jazz columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, predicted her success in 1977, writing: “Monnette Sudler is not only a superior musician, but a mature and self-assured young woman with an uncommon lock on the future.”
Throughout her music, Sudler reflected a passion for and exposure to many genres. Steeple Chase Records, a prestigious label, released her first CD as a leader with straight ahead, funky grooves on guitar and occasional sultry vocals. She merged traditional jazz with contemporary soul and poetry on her later CD releases for MSM-Records and Discograph. The volume of her albums, all of which are accessible online, reflects the prolific work she has done as a musician. It includes 2021’s Stay Strong, a stirring pandemic-era-driven mix of political drama and upbeat grooves.
Over the course of her 40-plus year career, Sudler traveled and performed in Europe, Japan, South Africa, Jamaica and the United States, performing with many jazz greats such as Grover Washington, Trudy Pitts, Hugh Masekela, Shirley Scott, Reggie Workman, and others. In addition to bass, Monnette played lead guitar, drums, and various African string and percussion instruments. A prolific composer, songwriter, and poet, she had the ability to score and arrange for various ensembles.
While the Philly native’s name may not be instantly recognizable, she was hailed as a legend in the guitar world. Sudler was featured in countless music publications, such as Scott Yanow’s The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide and Royal Stoke’s Growing up with Jazz.
A transplant gave Sudler a second chance in 2014, after the musician was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis that eroded her body’s immune system. However, those in the city rallied to support her as she struggled. It was an active fundraising campaign that resulted in the double lung transplant that saved her life.
Music and the arts were her focus as an educator, and she encouraged her students to embrace a positive attitude. As the founder and artistic director of the Philadelphia Guitar Summit, Sudler hosted an annual concert and workshops for audiences of all ages.
Monnette Sudler was a beloved and respected figure in the Philadelphia music community, and her contributions to the city’s cultural life are significant. The work of this talented musician and educator will continue to shape the sound of Philadelphia jazz for generations.