Monnette Sudler: Jazz in the city of Sisterly Affection

Monnette Sudler: Jazz in the city of Sisterly Affection

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Philadelphia is well-documented as having a major influence on the world of music. The rich operatic voices of Marian Anderson and Mario Lanza, the rock ’n’ roll beats of Chubby Checker and Frankie Avalon, the swagger of Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff, the strut of Mummers string bands and of course the soulful sounds of Philadelphia International are all part of our vast catalog of music. Philadelphia also boasts an impressive jazz heritage, starting with Chester native Ethel Waters (you club kids probably know her granddaughter, dance diva Crystal Waters), Philly transplants like John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and including more recent artists like Grover Washington Jr., Stanley Clarke and Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

This week, we spoke with one of Philadelphia’s ladies of jazz. With four decades of music under her belt, Philadelphia-born artist Monnette Sudler is a multifaceted creative force: guitarist, vocalist, arranger, composer, drummer and poet.

Sudler was nominated as best new jazz artist by the Philadelphia Music Foundation Annual Awards and, over the years, has received numerous awards and grants. She has performed throughout Europe, Asia and the United States including appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival, Kool Jazz Festival, the Presidential Jazz Weekend, the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, the Mellon Jazz Festival, the Berlin Jazz Festival and the Veine Jazz Festival in France to name a few.

In over four decades on the jazz scene, Sudler has played with many all-time jazz greats, such as Hugh Masekela, Philly Joe Jones, the aforementioned Washington Jr., Byard Lancaster, Freddie Hubbard, Tyrone Brown and Kenny Baron, as well as hot new artists like bassist Gerald Veasely. She even opened up for Ike and Tina Turner!

PGN: So Philly gal, tell me a little about the family. MS: I grew up in the Tioga section of Philadelphia, though we later moved to Germantown. My parents both worked at Frankford Arsenal. My mother was a secretary. But they divorced when I was in my preteens. I have three younger brothers.

PGN: What kind of big sister were you? MS: I was a bit of a mother figure. I think they thought I was mean. I had to be the disciplinarian from time to time.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? MS: I was a pretty good kid. Tomboyish but kind of quiet. My mother tells the story that when I was about 5 she bought me a doll. I was into playing cowboys, so apparently I gave the doll to my younger brother. I told him, “You can play with my dolls, but don’t touch my guns!”

PGN: When did you first get interested in music? MS: I started taking piano lessons when I was 8. I always enjoyed music. I was one of those kids who would stand in the mirror with a hairbrush singing songs, making up lyrics and stuff.

PGN: Mine was the vacuum cleaner pipe: I’d pretend it was a mic stand. MS: [Laughs.] Yes. Then when I was a teenager, I started taking guitar lessons and got into writing music, doing the singer-songwriter thing, mostly folk music. Then, later on, I started playing jazz guitar and started hanging out with other musicians and jamming with them.

PGN: Were you in the school band? MS: No, everything I did musically was outside of school.

PGN: Do you remember the first song that you composed? MS: I do. It was called “Sweet Life.” It was about nature, just enjoying the trees and flowers. I think I was 15.

PGN: Did you always have a musicality about you? MS: I suppose so. Even as a kid I always wanted to listen to jazz on the radio.

PGN: What types of music do you like? MS: Of course jazz, but I also like folk music. And I also enjoy both classical music and hip-hop.

PGN: You were with a group back in the ’70s called Sounds of Liberation. Were you very political? MS: Back then everyone was, with the Black Power movement and changes happening in the political front. The group was started by Khan Jamal and was kind of a jam group. We were coming in off the tail end of the modal era of jazz. We were at the start of a new niche using saxophone, vibes, congas, guitar, etc. — it was a lot of fun. We’d practice eight hours a day just jamming. They actually just remastered and reissued the first recording that we did. I kept getting emails from people offering me a lot of money to get a copy of the original recordings, and now it will be available to anyone. It kind of makes you stop and say, “Wow.” Who knew back then that all these years later, people would still be interested in hearing what we’d done.

PGN: That’s pretty cool. What was it like performing with Ike and Tina Turner? MS: We opened up for them. They were performing at Villanova University and Khan Jamal and I and a few other musicians performed. I was so excited I had a stomachache all day. I met Ike backstage, but not Tina. It was a great concert, people really enjoyed our part and Ike and Tina.

PGN: Any hobbies outside of music? MS: I’ve always done poetry. And I do some furniture refinishing when I get a chance. I’ve done a little caning but I prefer rushing, you can really prolong it and it’s really secure. Caning can be a little temperamental.

PGN: Any athletics? MS: No, I’m not really a sporty person.

PGN: Pets? MS: I have two terriers.

PGN: You’ve traveled all over the world. What’s an interesting experience you’ve had? MS: I had my birthday in Narvic, Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. It is one of the most northerly towns in the world and it was daylight there the entire time we were there, even at night. Which of course made it difficult to sleep.

PGN: Did it give you a lot of energy to have sunlight 24/7? MS: No, it was just weird. We’d finish a concert and come out of the venue at 2 a.m. and it would still be light outside and you’d be thinking, OK, well the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day, let’s do something ... But everything would be closed because it was the middle of the night! The sun was at its height at midnight on my birthday. It was wild.

PGN: When is your birthday? MS: June 5. I’m a Gemini. One of my albums, which features Grover Washington Jr., is called “Other Side of the Gemini.”

PGN: Tell me a little bit about coming out. What was an early sign? MS: I don’t know, I was a bit older when I came out. I told my family, which was a big step, but I don’t make a fuss about it.

PGN: What was a favorite performance? MS: I really enjoyed some of the gigs I did with Hugh Masekela. I grew up listening to him, and remember checking him out and getting into his music when I was young. I even got to go to some of his concerts, so being able to perform with him was amazing. He just had this incredible presence on stage. He would tell stories and I got to play guitar onstage while he was doing his thing. It felt good.

PGN: You were on stage in the ’70s, the time of outrageous fashion. What was your favorite piece of clothing? MS: I had a pair of hot pants; I think they call them something different now.

PGN: Short-shorts. MS: Yeah, and I wore them with rope sandals.

PGN: If you weren’t a musician, what job — outside of the arts — would you want to pursue? MS: Well, I always wanted to be a lawyer or a social worker [laughs] or a psychiatrist! I think in some ways, I do a little bit of all of those jobs, I just don’t have degrees in them.

PGN: Your degree is in music, right? MS: Yes, I studied at Berklee School of Music in Boston in the ’70s and also got a degree from Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music back in 2003. I studied composition, music therapy and performance.

PGN: And now you teach. MS: Yes, I conduct guitar workshops and workshops on creative development and composition as well as private instruction.

PGN: Do you use the music therapy? MS: I do, I work with children quite often. I’ve worked with poet Trapeta Mayson on a program called “Sisters in music and poetry” that is for all ages, but mostly geared toward youth. We do workshops to help to raise self-esteem, and to address cultural and social issues that confront our youth today. I also recently got a grant from the American Composers Forum Community Partners for a project called “Mend the Mind, Free the Soul” with the Community Council for Mental Health and Mental Retardation Inc. It’s a series of workshops with kids in the school system and, based on the workshops, I composed a suite of music, which I performed with other invited musicians on the 15th of April.

PGN: Can you give me an example of one of the things you did? MS: I brought in Harold Smith, who plays the didgeridoo, to do meditation workshops with the students.

PGN: I did one of his workshops, and when he starts doing the circular breathing and playing that base didgeridoo, the vibrations from it are amazing to feel. The kids must have loved him; he’s such a gentle giant. MS: Yeah, they do love him and he brought gongs and other things so the kids could learn about instruments from other countries. We also had a percussionist come and the vibraphonist, Randy Sutton. It’s nice because the kids don’t usually get a chance to be up close and personal with musicians and instruments like that. It was important for them to see the final concert too, to see how something can grow from an idea in your head to the concert stage. It’s a lesson that they can take for life.

PGN: It seems like so many politicians are cutting music and things they deem “extra-curricular” from public schools. What do you think of that type of budget slashing? MS: It’s insane, not everyone is cut from the same cloth and not everyone has the same talents. Some people learn differently and music can teach alternative ways of learning. Everything, no matter what it is, starts with a creative process and a person who can think creatively, who can step out of the box. Kids need that type of intellectual exercise. If you cut that off, you damage the educational process for a lot of people. We need to embrace all students and teach more than the basic methods of learning.

PGN: Speaking of learning, I understand you’re performing for an educator next week: sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. MS: Yes, I’m playing guitar at the Elixir event. It’s a fundraiser for the Mazzoni Center. Dr. Ruth is receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent J. Hughes and his wife Sheryl Lee Ralph will receive a Walter Lear Award. He’s been member of the Senate since 1994, and has been recognized for his work on HIV/AIDS and she is also an honored AIDS activist and the founding director of the DIVA Foundation. She is an actress [Deena in the original “Dreamgirls”] and created the organization in memory of the many friends she has lost to HIV/AIDS. It’s going to be a nice event. I hope everyone can make it.

Elixir: the Cure for the Common Gala will take place at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, 1200 Market St., from 7-10 p.m. May 20, with a special VIP reception at 6. Tickets and more information can be found at www.mazzonicenter.org.

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