First Lady of Jazz Guitar Recalls her Philly Youth, the Folks who Helped, and Why She #VotesThatJawn
Updated: May 13, 2020
By Rebecca Sinkler
Monnette Sudler never skips a vote. Never will. But as a kid, Sudler says, she wasn’t into politics. For her, it was all music. Today, she’s a Grammy-nominated composer/jazz guitarist/vocalist and leader of Monnette Sudler’s Philadelphia Guitar Ensemble. Sudler’s also known as the “First Lady of Jazz Guitar.” Her band has played in Europe, South Africa and Japan, and her schedule is packed with upcoming events in Cleveland, Washington, and Philly’s Kimmel Center and Art Museum, now-postponed gigs she’ll get to perform if we ever get out of this virus mess.
Though she took piano lessons from age eight, and sang in church with her mom, young Monnette really caught fire when her stepfather brought home a guitar one night. That was it! She fell in love with the instrument and wouldn’t let it go.
It got so bad her mother actually had to hide the thing in a closet. You see, mom was scared Monnette would turn to rock and roll (!) — not the classical piano career she'd dreamed of for her daughter.
But Monnette persisted. And persistence paid off. Plus luck. She went to a Methodist summer camp where she got a taste of performing in the annual talent show, getting raves for her cha-cha dance routine! By then, even her mother acknowledged Monnette’s gifts and got her a case for her guitar and lessons at the historic Wharton Centre, a now-defunct early 20th-century “settlement house” that served the rapidly-expanding African-American community in North Philadelphia. Wharton’s recreational activities included concerts with jazz greats and legends-in-the-making, one of which, of course, was Monnette.
Though her aunt and grandmother were always in her corner, she says her mother finally really came around, culminating in the two of them singing a duet of "Autumn Leaves" at the Wharton Centre, a high point of her career. (And a beautiful example of persistence in mother-daughter bonding.)
Moving around the city with her folks, she ended luckily in Germantown where she found Bob Zatzman, a teacher, who loved kids, encouraged his students and even had them over one Friday a month where they jammed, talked music, ideas, technique, problems — anything. She attributes lots of her success to such mentors, and feels that one of the reasons Philly turns out so many fine performers is our musicians’ passionate commitment to nurturing young talent like hers. After studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and later receiving her B.A. from Temple’s Esther Boyer College of Music and Dance, she’s published seven CDs and performed internationally with artists from Hugh Masekela to Archie Shepp and Grover Washington Jr. Sudler founded and runs the annual Guitar Summit, bringing guitarists from around the world to the Clef Club, where she’s a sought-after teacher. She’s collaborated with the poet Sonia Sanchez and longtime friend and colleague Trapeta Mayson, Philadelphia’s most recent Poet Laureate.
Passing the torch is an especially Philadelphia tradition, she feels, along with demanding audiences who set high standards for performers. Monnette’s part of that tradition, believing, as she does, in nurturing young talent. In addition to teaching at the Clef Club, she has written an instructional book on jazz improvising, Motif Mojo, and for several years wrote music for — and with — an after school workshop, the North Stars, a youth group at Art Sanctuary. An outstanding example of what these youngsters produced is Monnette’s song “Peace in Our Neighborhood.”
To young people trying to make it in the music world, Monnette says it helped her to collaborate with peers. She worked hard, she says, “but when I was starting out, I met someone that wanted to do the same thing. That was Khan Jamal, and we started a group, like a little garage band. Out of that group, we got some notoriety, played little clubs; we kept doing it 'til we got it right.”
As for politics, she says that the black empowerment movement got her involved in community issues. She believes that social change can be brought about through music and the arts. And voting? “I realized how many African Americans can’t vote — many, for instance, are incarcerated, they don’t get a say. That’s just not fair! So I feel I have an obligation to vote in their place. I vote because I can vote.”
Vote that Jawn! Tell everyone to vote that jawn. And, as Monnette, just keep doing it 'til we get it right.
Rebecca Pepper Sinkler is an editor at #VoteThatJawn. She was book review editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 70’s and the New York Times Book Review in the 80’s and 90’s.