Englewood Cliffs is nestled in the northeast corner of
Bergen County in New Jersey and sits atop the Palisades of Fort Lee directly north of Manhattan, a stones throw across the Hudson from the glitter and gild of New York City. It’s a diverse area and primarily a comfortable residential community that gave us names like Charles Lindbergh, Vince Lombardi, John Travolta, Eddie Murphy and in the fall of 1957, Emily.
Emily Remler was actually born in Manhattan and could have claimed to be a legitimate New Yorker but she was raised entirely in Englewood and though she spent a good deal of time in The Big Apple especially in her professional life, she always felt like and referred to herself as a New Jersey girl.
Emily was from a hard working household, her father a meat broker and her mother in social services. She had two older siblings, a brother who became a U.S. diplomat and was an amateur guitar player who owned the infamous Gibson ES 330 that she borrowed to never surrender and a sister who later became a lawyer and language teacher in New York City.
It wasn’t a musical family professionally but it was a family that believed in achieving and doing with encouragement to pursue individual ideas and access to music and instruments was always a part of that. Of interest, her precursor to the guitar was the piano. Friends remember her playing for hours while her parents were at work, though quite shy about playing if asked and also of spending time drawing which explains her early desires to attend design schools. Certainly there at home is where her imagination first flourished and the foundation was laid: if you apply yourself, if you search out creative ends, you will succeed. This early philosophy expressed itself throughout her career as she was undeterred by the bias and skepticism of the male dominated music business and doubters of her ability. She simply let her hard work and natural talent on the guitar do the talking for her. As she told interviewer Gene Lees in response to his question about the underlying sexism in the industry:
I’m not into sitting and crying about it, I’m into doing. I never was bitter about the fact that there are so many band leaders who have told me face to face that they couldn’t hire me because I was a woman, or that there have been so many instances where I wasn’t trusted musically and they handled me with kid gloves because they figured my time wasn’t strong. You have to believe in yourself. It never did occur to me to stay in one place and bitch about this, about how I wasn’t given a chance. I think it gives me more merit – to get really good, so good that it doesn’t matter: to get so good that you surpass it.
From The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990
by W. Royal Stokes comes this excerpt:
Becoming something of a household name among jazz fans here and abroad by mid-decade, Emily nevertheless had to cope with the lingering prejudice against the female instrumentalist in the art form. She expressed her feelings on the double standard she had to contend with everyday. Conceding that working conditions for women in jazz had improved over the course of the 1980’s, Emily lamented, “But there’s still a lot of things that bother me. Like people worrying about your looks when all you want to think about is the music.”
Emily was especially annoyed at a prominent critic who had objected (in print) to her habit of intermittently holding the guitar pick in her mouth whenever she switched to bare-finger playing. The critic confessed that he preferred to look away whenever she was doing this, to which Emily testily replied:
Good ! I wish he’d look away the whole time and picture me as John Coltrane !
It’s clear that preconceptions and prejudice existed for female players, especially those on non traditional instruments or roles in the music community. I think we can all agree that Emily met them head on and handled these moments with grace, humor and a determination that never let such obstacles take anything away from what mattered most, the music.
Robert Jospe, friend and performer with Emily offers the following about her confidence and how she carried herself in a man’s world…
She wasn’t born a virtuoso.
Each afternoon after her Indian music lesson, she couldn’t wait to play me what she learned and there was pure delight in her face as she played these new sound combination’s, half tones and quarter tones, different rhythms and time signatures.
Although she might not have played jazz before she began attending Berklee two months later, it’s easy to see how she “absorbed” jazz just like she did Indian music during her brief summer experience. She had incredible enthusiasm about all that music could be, every complex chord and rhythm and a determination to make those sounds come out of her and her guitar.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that Emily learning these “weird time signatures”, memorizing Ravi Shankar records and being exposed to such a diverse and rich palette of non-traditional music helped spark her interests and later mastery of polyrhythms and Brazilian jazz styles where she excelled in her playing.
I did sculpting and drawings and had a choice to make between Rhodes and Berklee but I was so frustrated with art. I couldn’t get it the way that I wanted it. Music, at least you get more chances and a little more time and the companionship of other musicians.
She opted for Berklee College of Music because music seemed more forgiving and simply because they had accepted her. She later mused, “it was easy to get in to but staying in was hard”. This was quite a casual and carefree attitude from someone that went on to pour incredible amounts of hard work into practicing and playing but it was her experience at Berklee that would have the greatest impact on who she became as an artist. It was indeed the first place she ever heard jazz.
It turned me around, she said. Initially, all I heard was a bunch of notes, so I know what it’s like when people hear jazz for the first time. When I first heard Miles and Coltrane, I didn’t like them, they scared me but when I heard Charlie Christian, the guitarist with Benny Goodman, and Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist with Dave Brubeck, I could hear the melody and relate to it. Desmond got me into jazz, and then when I heard Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny, I was totally taken.
At that point her life became clear to her; I knew I would be a guitarist.
Jazz sounded “ so serious and introverted “, she immediately knew where to focus her energy and the directions she wanted to explore.
It was her moment of epiphany. She had finally found her purpose.
Still, there was a lot of work and frustration.
For the first six months at college, Emily found she was unprepared for the focused intensity of performing and was too shy to play in front of her teacher for months but even this awkward lack of confidence would not prevent her from excelling at learning to read and play entirely new forms of music and it is also where she fortuitously came in contact with Brazilian influences, specifically bossa nova rhythms from another advanced and multi-talented student Celia Vaz, that became one of the strongest forms of music attraction for her career ahead. While their lessons together were nothing more than sitting in the corridors of classrooms trading techniques and ideas, she credits Celia as a major influence on how she learned and approached the Bossa style.
Emily was a mere 18 when she graduated Berklee, with a new direction to follow, a head full of ideas and a growing annoyance of what she considered to be her playing limitations.
She was most unhappy with her rhythm and timing and set about to eliminate this deficiency with intense day long, closed door sessions between herself and her metronome in a rented room on the shores of Long Beach Island in NJ. This self imposed wood shedding was how she spent her first summer after school before moving down to the Big Easy of New Orleans to rejoin her boyfriend and fellow Berklee musician, Steve Masakowski. She often referred to this extremely focused summer as her most relevant in development and tried for the next five consecutive summers to replicate that intensity without success. It turned out to be a once in a lifetime experience that could not be reproduced on demand but was none-the-less a pivotal point in her musical evolution.
Once in New Orleans she dove head first into the professional life of a working musician, playing small venues like Tyler Club, hotels (she was the guitarist in the house band for the Fairmont-Roosevelt Hotel with leader Dick Stabile in the famed Blue Room, countless music halls, dinner lounges, weddings and other private receptions, while also teaching individual students and continuing her own leisurely studies by jamming with renowned New Orleans instructor and performer, Hank Mackie. It was an incredible period of personal growth for her musically. Emily and Steve had a small quartet called FourPlay that kept busy with gigs and she also is mentioned to have played many times with the R&B group
~ from Rob Dyer, sharing his memory of Em in the Big Easy.
Little Queenie and The Percolators.
Others that were woven into her New Orleans experience were Wynton Marsalis, Joel Grey, Ben Vereen, Robert Goulet and Nancy Wilson. It was also the entrance of Herb Ellis into her life, who would become a major influence and mentor. Emily knew his work and found out he was in town. Her foot in the door came when she contacted him for advice on repairing her Herb Ellis model guitar, so they met and ended up jamming for hours.
As Herb remembers it,
I was working in New Orleans in 1977, when this young girl, she couldn’t have been 20, came and asked me for a lesson. I asked her to play something for me, and when she did, I just couldn’t believe what I heard. Forget about “girl”, she’s going to be one of the greatest jazz guitar players who ever lived. She can do anything.
I had really just screwed around at Berklee, I didn’t concentrate that hard, I was a child, a total beginner. I came out not playing that great but with a lot of knowledge of chords and theory. I would say that Berklee was good for me in theory and harmony and ear training but when I got to New Orleans I was forced to get better and better. I played all these show gigs and jazz gigs, and I had 25 students. I was forced to come up to a certain level of playing. It was great. There’s a modern jazz thing happening down in there. It’s much hipper than New York because the people want to be a part of it. In New York, it’s very serious, in New Orleans everybody jumps up and down, there’s an R&B kind of feeling. I sort of stole that rich culture and applied it to my own music. If I had stayed in Boston, I’d be playing Giant Steps like a madman- like everybody else.
But as you can imagine it was a natural progression to move back to New York and all it’s jazz appeal. She began jamming with area musicians, forming loose trios around town and backing on many occasions with the likes of Astrud Gilberto (where her deep love and command of Brazilian Jazz steadily flourished), John Clayton (her first guest appearance on an album, It’s All In The Family), Nancy Wilson at Carnegie Hall, and Eddie Gomez. She states that she played every gig she could which led to a few performances in a punk rock band of all things, called the Stereotypes where she played a Les Paul with pink dust in her hair. True story. She also kept giving lessons when possible and among her students was none other than Gregory Hines, who in turn invited her to Los Angeles to be a part of his production of Sophisticated Ladies that featured songs based on Duke Ellington’s work
including Satin Doll, Mood Indigo, Take The A Train and Caravan.
All her dedication and hard work was beginning to shine.
Click image to read an interview with Emily about the show in 1982 from The Los Angeles Times.
It was a golden time, it was a time unwinding.
And the world was hers… for a while.
Transitions in 1983 marked her 3rd solo album and just as the title suggests, it signified the changing and maturity of her music and writing skills. Her own voice was beginning to emerge with great Latin overtones. Meanwhile she continued to build her reputation around the New York scene, gigging with jazz groups and touring. The high momentum career did have it’s downside on relationships, as it created too much unrelenting conflict to deal with and due to many “haphazard meetings” caused by their opposing travel schedules and other more personal issues that began to strain the young marriage, Emily and Monty divorced in ’84.
That didn’t seem to slow her down any, Catwalk, an all original compositions effort was released the very same year. Mocha Spice came from this album and is maybe her most well known song but perhaps the most overlooked of her compositions is Pedals, a very Coltrane-esque song with haunting melodic phrases. Her writing had developed great range and complexity. She also appeared on Ray Brown’s Soular Energy for one song, then followed that with a great duo album in 1985 with longtime friend and guitarist – Larry Coryell called Together, considered by many to be a crowning achievement for a jazz guitar duo album. It’s memorable for How Insensitive and the best swing blues version of a misnamed Pat Martino tune, Cisco listed as Gerri’s Blues on the album.
It was a non stop schedule of playing and touring for the now seasoned twenty seven year old veteran and rising star. She was in high demand as a featured guest for albums with Rosemary Clooney and John Colianni as well as many live performances and festivals before her next solo album would appear and one of her most successful in ’87, East to Wes. Such a great album from start to finish highlighted by her tribute to Herb Ellis called Blues For Herb, among other swinging bebop standards that she took to new heights like Clifford Brown’s Daahoud . Mingled in were European and Asia tours and recordings with Hank Crawford’s Quintet while in France on a much overlooked jazz jam album called Bossa International and several touring venues with Larry. More circuits and guest appearances followed in ’87 – ’89 (Susannah McCorkle and David Benoit are the most notable names). She had also briefly moved to Pittsburgh PA, where she was Artist in Residence with Duquesne University and flourished at the local clubs, trying still to overcome her on going personal issues with substance abuse by keeping old habits in NY at a distance and new, more positive challenges front and center but life was also becoming much more hectic and demanding.
Time was flying, but time was grinding.
Jan Leder, a jazz flutist in the NY area shares this remembrance:
I met Emily at DeFemeo’s in Yonkers one night at a jam session. She was an amazing player. She had just returned from a trip to Japan and had not slept, but here she was jamming away. We somehow got to talking, and talked for quite a while. Here was someone who I thought had everything I’d ever wanted, namely a “successful” jazz career and recognition, not to mention real facility on her instrument. After a while chatting she told me she envied me for my more “normal” life, and that made me reconsider the way I was looking at things at the time. She was clearly hurting, and yet she played so incredibly well. I will always remember her for how beautifully she played that night, and also for setting me straight in terms of appreciating what I had and was not seeing.
In this clear break from her early traditional approaches Emily delves into more electronics here, incorporating the sounds of a Casio Synth guitar on her new mix of music, still heavily influenced by her continued love of Brazilian melodies, so evident in “Carenia” and “Simplicidaje”, as well as chord melody showcases like “You Know What I’m Sayin’ and “Second Childhood”.
With the exception of one title, it was another album full of her uniquely evolving sound and dreams and her broadening interests into the fusion side of jazz .
Robert Jospe recalls how Emily envisioned her future.
All along she kept winning respect for her ever growing musicianship and dedication to the music.
“Just Incredible.” ~ Jim Hall
“I’m taken by the great authority with which she plays” ~ Charlie Byrd
“The new superstar of the guitar” ~ Herb Ellis
She was no longer the novelty woman jazz guitarist but simply a great guitar player in her own right. She was becoming comfortable with her own voice and vision in music and stronger in her attitude about style and substance. She was making lesson videos, taping live performances on The Jazz Master’s series of television shows, while still finding time for teaching and her own personal studies.
“I was unprepared for the sheer strength of her playing. She was an extraordinarily daring player, edging close to the avant-garde, and she swung ferociously. There was also a deeply lyrical quality to her playing. She was a guitarist of unusual authority and individuality , a talented player who was one of the brightest happenings in the jazz guitar world of her decade. Harmonically, melodically and rhythmically, she had it all. ”
It seemed to be another good year.
We are lucky to have had the time and pleasure of her company at all.
~ Emily Remler died suddenly on tour, in Sydney, Australia on May 3rd, 1990,
officially listed as heart failure. She was 32 years young. ~
View New York Times Obituary
Likewise, the audio below is a revealing conversation between David B. Johnson, host of NPR Night Lights Jazz with Emily’s fellow musician Robert Jospe, a view from someone on the inside.
Click and listen to the entire NPR program
Night Lights presenting “Emily Remler: a Musical Remembrance”
in it’s uncut one hour format from Indiana public radio affiliate, WFIU.
Requires real audio player for it’s streaming format.
Read more of David’s insight on this issue with his article:
” Emily Remler, Artist Sites and That Issue.”
No matter what your thoughts are concerning Emily’s substance abuse there’s no denying her incredible spirit, talent and dedication to her music, fans and students. Emily’s influences and indelible impact on the world of Jazz and the people affected so deeply from her contributions even to this day are the most important things to keep center stage as we go forward.
1957 Born, Sept. 18th. Manhattan, NY. Raised in Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
1970-1974 Dwight Morrow H.S./ Windsor Mt. School in MA. Graduates at age 16.
1974-1976 Berklee School of Music. Studies with Larry Baione. Graduates at age 18.
1976-1979 Lived and worked in New Orleans. Performed with FourPlay, Little Queenie and the Percolators. Studies with Hank Mackie.
1978 Chance meeting with Herb Ellis, invited to play Concord Jazz Festival for 1st time.
1979 Moved back to NY. First recorded guest appearance, Clayton’s All In The Family.
1980 Plays Concord Jazz Festival, Kool-Newport Festival, Berlin Festival.
1981 Records 1st album as leader. Performs with Los Angeles production of Broadway hit, Sophisticated Ladies. Marries Jazz pianist Monty Alexander. Receives “Woman of The Year” award.
1982 Records second album as leader, Take Two.
1983 Produces 3rd album, Transitions, includes 3 original compositions. Tours Canada & Netherlands.
1984 4th album Catwalk is released. Guest appearance on Ray Brown’s, Soular Energy. Marriage to Alexander ends.
1985 Duo album Together, with Larry Coryell, released. Named ‘ Guitarist Of The Year’ by DownBeat Jazz Magazine’s international poll.
1986 Collaboration on Clooney’s Van Heusen cd, and Colianni’s self titled album. Produces lesson videos, Bebop & Swing Guitar and Advanced Latin & Jazz Improvisation.
1987 Records live album: Bossa International with Hank Crawford Quintet in France. Tours Europe and Asia.
1988 Records East To Wes, featured on No More Blues with McCorkle. Plays Las Vegas. Studies composition in NY with Aydin Esen. Lived in Pittsburgh, Artist in Residence at Duquesne University, studies Composition with Bob Brookmire.
1989 Last U.S. recordings as she appears on Benoit’s Waiting For Spring, and McCorkle’s acclaimed, Sabia, and one song for a homeless benefits album called Christmas Guitars. Tapes Jazz Master’s solo performance show started by Les Paul. Tours Australia and New Zealand.
Receives Berklee’s Distinguished Alumni award.
1990 Lost to us on tour in Sydney, Australia, May 3rd. (In international time, for the United States, this would be May 4th.)
1990 Final solo album, This Is Me released posthumously.