Emily Remler would be turning 63 this year, but she is not because she died in Sydney, Australia on May 4, 1990. This year marks 30 since one of the most promising young musicians of the 1980s was lost, at the very cusp of a new decade in which she would have surely figured prominently. It’s impossible to calculate what was lost from her death, but much was gained from her life. Remler is one of the greatest guitar players there ever were, of any gender, but her unique status among female musicians of her era earns her degree of influence and infamy to which few others quite compare.
Put most simply, one might say that Remler was to the world of jazz what Amy Winehouse was to pop music: a phenom who fell at the height of her powers, for similar reasons. Emily Remler, a Virgo, was born into a Jewish family in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on September 18, 1957. Her fate may have been written into the stars, seriously. 1957 was one of the most important years in the evolution of jazz music, with almost every major artist of the era doing some of their most important work. It was, for example, the year that John Coltrane spent much of working at the Five Spot under Thelonious Monk, which directly precipitated the “sheets of sound” concept that would animate his subsequent work.
She also happened to grow up in just the right city, at just the right time for someone who might aspire to a career in jazz. Rudy Van Gelder, arguably the greatest recording engineer of all-time, was not even ten miles away in Hackensack, where he recorded essential titles for Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside and other labels in a custom studio he’d built at his parents’ house in 1946. Van Gelder built a bigger and better studio at his own home in 1959, when Remler was 2. The location? Englewood Cliffs. Every jazz fan owns multiple albums that were recorded there.
The town has a little over 5,000 people now, as opposed to the 2,913 counted in the 1960 census. That number doubled in the 1960s, reaching a peak of 5,938 in 1970, and it’s lost about 10% of their population since then. One of those lost was Emily Remler, who moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. She’d started playing guitar at age ten, drawing early inspiration from rock artists like Jimi Hendrix. It was the fertile Berklee scene that cultivated her taste for jazz. She immersed herself in the tradition of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow. One assumes that, given her early love for rock, she’d have also been familiar with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom most would consider the most important female guitarist of her time, as well as Nancy Wilson, the iconic lead guitarist of Heart who crafted some of the most duplicated riffs of the ‘70s.
She would also have known about Mary Osborne (1921-1992), who was perhaps the first woman to make a name nationally for playing guitar, in any genre, let alone jazz, and belongs in the same conversation. Osbourne was affiliated with a number of with several other luminous ladies of the business, including Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday, in addition to men like Dizzy Gillespie, Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Papa Jo Jones, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk. She released at least three albums under her own name, while making guest spots on other records. One notable example would be “The Mighty Two”, a drum-battle record from 1962 by Louis Bellson and Gene Krupa.
As a white woman from North Dakota, she started working in territory bands as a pre-teen, clocking thousands of hours in playing experience by the time she was old enough to drink. She saw Charlie Christian in person, a rare honor, since he died in 1942. She was established in the New York jazz scene in time to witness the birth of bebop firsthand, mixing band gigs and studio work there and in Chicago, Philly and Los Angeles for decades. She continued working well into her late-60s, ultimately passing away just a couple years after Remler. (I have no idea if they ever met, but I would assume so.)
Remler was 24 when she recorded her first album “Firefly” (1981). Like many of her early albums, it found her with an ad-hoc unit hired by her label, Concord Records. The group included bassist Bob Maize, veteran drummer Jake Hanna and legendary pianist Hank Jones, a first-ballot hall-of-famer by any standard. Remler never had a serious regular unit during most of her career; she was always presented as essentially a solo artist, and not much effort was made to get her formally linked-up in the public mind with comparable talent of that era. She played with many talented musicians, but rarely was she ever in setting that seemed truly worthy of her.
Remler was married once, to pianist Monty Alexander from 1981 to 1984. It’s unclear why they broke up, and that doesn’t really matter. She was also romantically-linked with fellow guitarist Larry Coryell, the “Godfather of Fusion” with whom she recorded the sublime duet album “Together” in 1985. In terms of the study of jazz guitar technique, it’s an essential recording, and a touchstone in both their individual careers. It’s probably his most accessible title of the time, and a great introduction to Remler, who was named “Guitarist of the Year” by Down Beat that same year.
She spent a considerable stint touring the world with bossa nova pioneer Astrud Gilberto, then went back to running her own small groups. A smattering of sumptuous bootlegs available on YouTube find her also playing in the company of folks like Monika Dannerlein and John Abercromie. Perhaps the best of this material may be found in two sets recorded a couple years apart at the Musicians’ Institute in Michigan. The trios are rounded out by a bassist and drummer from the faculty, a fresh group with fresh material. The second session, in particular, is indispensable; Remler seems to stretch out far more than she does in most other settings. (In the first, probably recorded in 1984, you can see her playing her first guitar, a Gibson ES-330 that she got from her older brother)
All but one of Remler’s seven official albums were made for Concord Jazz, which is unfortunate. They did good work, but the production comes off just a touch antiseptic in those first years of “DDD” sound. A lot of the low end of Remler’s guitar is suppressed in the mix, and the bass players come off consistently muted. (The Musicians’ Institute session, for example, paints a much fuller picture of how her sound actually sounded.) The same music, if recorded under auspices of Verve, Impulse or Blue Note, would have packed dramatically more sonic punch, and those labels’ superior marketing budgets would have meant more commercial success and a bigger public profile, which might have helped stave off some of the artist’s darker moments. Plus, her legacy would have benefited immeasurably from association with such brands. She would have been a particularly nice fit at ECM Records, for example.
The exact circumstances of Emily Remler’s death remain unclear, 30 years later. Technically, she died of heart failure, likely exacerbated by drug use. She had suffered from heroin addiction for years prior, and some reports suggest dilaudid, as well. Remler’s chaotic personal life gave way to occasional depressive episodes, but nothing has ever emerged to suggest that her death was anything a terrible accident. The fact is that she never got nearly as much coverage as she deserved, while a combination of bad luck and worse choices means that much of her story will always be a matter of pure speculation.
She died at a time when jazz music was just beginning to emerge from creative hibernation, right before the CD market (which was always largely driven by jazz, due to the Sony connection) really took flight, and the nostalgic appeal of the culture helped subsidize an entire generation of new stars. Had she lived, Remler would have surely figured prominently in that resurgence. She would have been a regular on the exploding jazz festival market, made the covers of all the magazines and seen huge new sales growth, regardless of what label she was on. But there would have definitely been a bidding war, and it’s entirely possible that she’d have ended up going mainstream, signing with one of the firms that were buying up jazz labels throughout the decade.
The story of a white Jewish girl from New Jersey becoming one of the top-ranked guitar players in the world would have had great appeal to the media, not just because of her ethnicity, and gender, but also the fact that she wrote most of her own songs, in a genre built around the endless flogging of standards. That music would have appealed to a growing market for jazz fusion, crossing over into jam rock. The early ‘90s was defined by a renewed focus on female musicians in multiple genres, particularly in rock and roll. Remler would’ve been a star in an era populated by women like Kim Gordon, Liz Phair and PJ Harvey, an icon without even trying to be one. Had she lived, Emily Remler would’ve been the only jazz musician to show up on MTV in the ‘90s.
For years, people openly wondered if women could be great guitar players. The cognoscenti know that question was answered 60 years ago, and everyone knows it now. Remler was the crucial link between those generations of female guitarists. When the light had almost gone out completely, as far as popular awareness, Remler carried the torch until her body gave out, at which point that torch fell to ladies who may have never even heard of her, but who could be considered kindred spirits.
Nowadays, the list of prominent—indeed, dominant—female guitarists is nearly endless: Tash Sultana, Anna Calvi, Sharon Van Etten, Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres), Kelley Deal and, of course, the great Liz Cooper, who has emerged in just the last couple of years to become the current standard-bearer within that particular subset. Mary Halvorson has led most jazz polls over the last few years, making her the nominal heir to Remler’s legacy, while somehow catering to the mainstream and avant-garde in almost seamless fashion. Where once this was a subject of serious scholarly inquiry, we have thankfully progressed to a point where such discussions will never be necessary again, and the too-short life and shorter career of Emily Remler was a crucial step in our advancing to this point.
Ultimately, when looking back in consideration of someone readily acknowledged as a jazz icon, the most obvious takeaway is that her contributions transcend any particular genre. Remler was rooted in the jazz tradition, but took creative leaps at seemingly every opportunity, such that she’s very much in the tradition of the rock and folk musicians she admired as a kid. At its most extreme, the work touched on elements of electric blues, or even prog-rock. The enormity of her skillset, coupled with the scope of her influences, meant she could have thrived in any musical environment she chose for herself as her 30s progressed into her 40s and beyond. But that never happened, and it really sucks. It really, REALLY sucks.