Arts Remembrance: Emily Remler — The Short Life and Sad Death of a Jazz Guitarist
By Con Chapman
Emily Remler took a particularly clear-eyed view of her work. She didn’t want to be judged by a lesser standard because she was a woman in the overwhelmingly male world of jazz.
The death of jazz pianist Geri Allen went largely unnoticed in 2017, a reminder that, however scarce the rewards of a life in jazz may be, the odds of success as anything other than a vocalist in the genre are much longer if you’re a woman. Asked to name a female practitioner of any jazz instrument other than the piano (whose refined pedigree insures that it is always socially acceptable), even avid fans will hesitate and usually come up blank.
Jazz’s history as a lascivious art form may have something to do with it: after all, it was born in Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, and its practitioners have struggled to shed the image of being the music of the wrong side of the tracks ever since. 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 stretches 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 (on September 18) 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 electric version of that instrument, and she is said to have listened to and absorbed the acid rock style of Jimi Hendrix.
From 1976 to 1979 she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she began to listen to jazz guitarists including Wes Montgomery, Herb Ellis, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, and Jim Hall. Like some other guitarists who start 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; she had 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 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, 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 whatever gigs 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 and, as she put it, after the divorce she “tried to destroy myself as fast as I could.” She began to use heroin and Dilaudid, an opioid medication used to treat moderate to severe pain. Remler became hooked on the high it produces; as described by comedian Rob Delaney in The Atlantic, it feels “utterly wonderful” as it courses through one’s veins. Because Dilaudid is legal, Remler presumably had readier access to it than heroin, either through a prescription of her own or second-hand.
With the exception of Larry Coryell, the male guitarists who Remler admired and imitated weren’t known as heavy users, so it wasn’t a case of hero worship that made her turn to hard drugs. Users of Dilaudid with depression run a high risk for addiction, according to the Prescriber’s Digital Reference, and the drug can cause respiratory distress and death when taken in high doses or in combination with alcohol. In fact, it is approved for use in executions by the state of Ohio.
One suspects — although it went unsaid at the time — that Dilaudid contributed to the heart attack that killed Remler in May of 1990 while she was on tour in Australia. She can be seen on YouTube videos playing on that tour, and she seems happy, even buoyant. 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 responded “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.” Her pain was personal, not political.
Since her death, her image has sometimes been subject to airbrushing. The self-described “nice Jewish girl from New Jersey,” who in fact projected an intense persona when soloing, doesn’t appear on the images that accompany two streaming service compilations of her music (“Jazz at Night’s End” and “Sounds of Winter”), nor even on her own album Larry Coryell & Emily Remler on Apple Music. On the first two there are attractive but prototypically WASPy women, one smoking a cigar seductively; on the last, just white type on a black and green background.
For all the progress that her career represented for women on an instrument that is often psychoanalyzed as a musical mimic of an erect phallus, Remler is still viewed as an artist who has to be gussied up for commercial purposes. The double standard remains in effect. Does anybody try to sell records by putting a toupee on bald Joe Pass?
And however much American entertainment may have advanced from the days when the late Valerie Harper, a non-Jew, played Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Tyler Moore’s Jewish friend, somebody still thinks it’s a good idea to turn Emily Remler into something she wasn’t.
Con Chapman is the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press).