The recent passing of pianist Geri Allen at the age of 60 was a reminder that however scarce the rewards of a life in jazz may be, the odds of success as an instrumentalist in the genre are longer if you’re born without a Y chromosome. Asked to name a female practitioner of any given jazz instrument other than the piano, whose refined pedigree insures that it is socially-acceptable for all seasons, most fans and even critics can be forgiven if they hesitate, stare at their shoes, and come up blank.
Jazz’s history as a lascivious art form may have something to do with it; the term itself comes from a verb meaning “to copulate,” and bluenoses over the years have railed against both the music in general and instruments on which it is played, particularly the saxophone. The thought of a mother at a suburban bridge club proudly saying “My daughter, the jazz guitarist,” accordingly beggars the imagination.
Which made the artistic development of Emily Remler, a jazz guitarist who died of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 32, that much more remarkable. Remler was born in 1957 in New York, and began playing guitar when she was ten. That chronology would place her squarely in the middle of the mid-60’s flowering of the electrified version of the instrument, and she is said to have listened to and absorbed the acid rock style of Jimi Hendrix and, less fortunately, the overwrought play of the Great White Blues Hope, albino Johnny Winter.
From 1976 to 1979 she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she began to listen to jazz guitarists, including Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Pat Martino, and Joe Pass. Like other guitarists who started out with rock but have an epiphany when they are first exposed to jazz in large doses, she switched styles. In 1978 she was praised by Ellis as “the new superstar of the jazz guitar” when he introduced her at the Concord Jazz Festival, so she learned her lessons quickly and well.
She moved to New Orleans and by 1981 made her first record as a leader, Firefly. Her anomalous status as a woman in jazz may have brought her some attention in the man-bites-dog theory of newsworthiness, but she shrugged it off. In 1982 she replied to a question along that line from a People magazine writer by saying “I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavy-set black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery.”
She recorded an album with hard-edged guitarist Larry Coryell, Together, but given jazz’s small share of the market for recorded music, she had to play the gigs that came her way. She was part of the pit band for the Los Angeles version of Sophisticated Ladies from 1981–1982, and toured for several years with samba and bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto. By 1985 she was at the top of her game, winning Guitarist of the Year in Down Beat’s international poll.
She married Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander in 1981, but the marriage ended in 1984. Somewhere along the way she developed a heroin habit, and one suspects that the drug may have contributed to the heart attack that killed her in 1990, while in Australia. (She can be seen on YouTube videos playing on that tour.) She took a particularly clear-eyed view of her work, and didn’t want to be judged by a lesser standard because she was a woman in the overwhelmingly male world of jazz. Asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said “Good compositions, memorable guitar playing and my contributions as a woman in music, but the music is everything, and it has nothing to do with politics or the women’s liberation movement.”
Con Chapman’s “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.