Lessons with Emily Remler.
I was raised in a musical household - my father, while not a professional musician, was an accomplished self-taught pianist and guitarist. Like others I took a strong interest in music in my teen years and after a few years of rock and pop gravitated almost exclusively to jazz. After I showed an interest in the guitar, around age 15, my parents signed me up for music lessons at a music store which continued around 3 years. As soon as I was of age, I was frequenting the local jazz clubs. By my mid-twenties, I realized my playing was not progressing as rapidly as I would have liked, and so hoping to improve I decided it might help to approach guitarists who were in town at the time, ones that I particularly liked, for lessons.


Performance # 1: Joe’s Bar at the NetherlandJoesBar To my knowledge Emily had not performed here, and finally, one weekend, in the mid/late 1980’s, I saw that she was booked at a lounge, Joe’s Bar at the Netherland Hilton hotel in downtown Cincinnati. While not a jazz club per se, they would occasionally have jazz musicians perform. I was quite familiar with her playing by then, and had several of her albums which I was listening to with some frequency. So I went to check things out, and after listening for a while I realized she was one I would just simply have to approach for a guitar lesson. I would have to. The live performance was even superior to anything I had heard on record.


She stretched out freely and at will. Her tone was warm and thick, just the sound I have always loved, she would close her eyes when playing and made it look so effortless.

She seemed to float through the changes of the tune, difficult tunes at that. Perhaps what struck me even more was that I felt a strong affinity for the selections of tunes she choose to play. Bolivia, Nardis, Emily, the ballad which I had listened to Bill Evans play many times. I believe Recorda-Me was another tune that night, the Joe Henderson tune which I also was trying to work up. So I approached her at the end of the last set, and she said yes, she would be happy to give me a lesson. She said to meet her in the hotel lobby the next day.

Lesson # 1: The Netherland I showed up the next day, and waited in the lobby, and waited longer, but she did not show. I left disappointed, but since I knew I was coming back later that evening for another show, I would ask again ( I had to ask again). It was a second night of great music, and when she saw me at the end, she apologized and asked that we have the lesson the following day, as she was going to be in town at least another night. So I waited again, in the lobby. Again, no Emily, until about 15 minutes after the appointed time she came walking rapidly through the lobby, guitar in hand. People I am sure were looking thinking what is that woman doing with that guitar, and I thought…If they only knew. She was very cordial, apologized for being late and said we could go on up to the room for the lesson.
We entered the room and she said she would be right with me, I think she may have turned on the TV, but she said to go ahead and warm up. Several minutes passed. I was warming up, running through scales and so on, and was just generally puzzled about what was going on. Was she listening to assess my playing, I wondered. I really wasn’t sure. Finally she came out, got her guitar and came over. The TV was still on, I can still recall the movie, and I thought, shouldn’t we turn the TV off, but she continued and asked me to play. I played a tune I had been working on, we talked in general terms about my style and approach to a tune, etc. We spent a lot of time on blues changes, and she wrote out some exercises for a Bb blues, (click here to view exercise) emphasizing the use of guidetones and how the third and seventh are the most important intervals of a chord. So we played a blues in Bb and when we traded fours, she said ‘yeah’ when I played one my often used licks, which of course was so very encouraging. I remember her commenting that she loved to play the blues in Bb and that Sunday morning was her favorite day and time to play it.
I recall that I asked her to show me the chord voicing she used to open up her version of “Eleuthra” which to this day remains one of my favorite recordings.

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She thought for a moment, she said she hadn’t played them in a while, then showed me the difficult fingering, my fingers could barely stretch that far. It seemed like something out of a Ted Greene book. She instructed me to learn Wes’ tune “Fried Pies” and said it would not matter if it took a half hour or 3 months, but just be sure to learn it.

Towards the close of the lesson Emily mentioned that she needed to go uptown in the morning to take care of a few things. I offered to drive her as she said she was planning on taking a cab. I thought it would be a great opportunity to hang out with this gifted jazz guitarist I had just met, and I would also have the chance to pick her brain about some things. She accepted and I picked her up the following morning.

The whole way I was peppering her with questions about music; questions she had been asked probably hundreds of times, but she was very gracious and open. I recall asking her how musicians play songs in different keys for example. She said the ones who do that well, she mentioned Jimmy Rowles by name, usually accompany vocalists and learn tunes not by chord name, but by the relationship to others chords in the song to the tonal center, e.g. using the diatonic names instead of the actual chord names. So that way they don’t really care what key its in. I asked how many tunes she knows, she said she didn’t really know, but somewhere over a 1000.

I could not believe I was driving through the streets of Cincinnati in my 1972 VW beetle with a musician of this caliber!


When we got back to the hotel she thanked me and said we could keep in touch, she gave me her phone number and address. I had lessons from a couple others guitarists who were gracious enough to leave their phone number, and I didn’t call, but this time I told myself I would. It was obvious she took teaching seriously, and was invested in her students’ learning, and as I have gleaned from the website it seems she commonly gave her contact info to anyone who wanted to further their abilities, and she kept in touch with many, many students. How generous of her time. It’s just an example of how open and giving of herself she was. So over the next couple years or so on occasion I would call her, or send a letter, and fortunately I had the opportunity to see her perform a couple more times.


Lesson # 2 “mail lesson”: Lay Back Awhile later I thought I would ask her to evaluate my playing and give me more pointers. I was again frustrated with my playing, feeling in a rut. I thought I should be playing better by now. So I called her and she agreed to do this. I recorded 4-5 tunes on a cassette tape and sent a check for the same amount as she charged for the prior lesson. She responded back with a 5 page letter, postmarked June 23, 1986, in which she indeed gave some tips and things to work on, but in a more general sense it seemed to be more of a lesson in life. She said some things in the letter I believe any musician or non musician might find helpful:
EmilySuggestions “People tell me my time is good --- but I still play with the metronome on 2 & 4. My foot even taps on those beats. That’s another thing; I found that I had to move a portion of my body to really feel swing rhythm. (Like dancing). For instance, if the group is not swinging, I can’t move my neck a full revolution."
“You’d be surprised how few chords you really need to play. Joe Pass will play single note lines for 2 or 3 minutes without adding 1 chord for ‘identification’ of the key.”
“The fact that you are aware of your faults means you’re on your way to changing them. It’s the folks that don’t know there’s anything wrong that are in trouble.”
“ As a matter of fact, the best thing I can tell you is to ‘lay back’, in general. Lay back on your time, don’t be afraid of some silence, or skipping a few changes. Lay back on judging yourself constantly, lay back on your expectations. All we have is today."
"You never get there. There is no musician who wakes up one day & says “well man, I’m there”. Music is a wonderful, limitless journey --- enjoy it. If you’re impatient to see improvement, listen to yourself a year ago. You would have given anything 3 years ago to play like you do now. I’m playing regularly with Pat Martino (incredible, huh?) and this cat actually apologies that his ‘chops are down’. It’s all relative.”
“…don’t even look at the competition. That’s their thing."

I also recall a conversation at some time with her about the ‘rut’ topic and she said sometimes when you play, its just not there, its not happening. She said, put the guitar down. Do something else, go to the movies. Come back to it when the feel is there.

Performance # 2 and Lesson #3: Norfolk While vacationing in Virginia Beach later, by pure coincidence, I found she was playing in Norfolk. I saw it in the newspaper, and thought ‘a chance to hear Emily again’. I got a room in Norfolk and looked up the hotel in which she playing, and so called and asked to speak with her. I was able to reach her, said I happened to see she was in town, and asked for another lesson ( in those days my guitar was always with me) and said I would see her at the show. She was performing with local musicians; again I was so impressed with her playing, long fluid lines and interesting harmony and chord substitutions. Following the show, or perhaps at the lesson, I asked her what she thought of the band accompanying her. I thought the drummer was pretty good, and was expecting to hear a comment about the drummer, but instead she commented to the effect of “Can you believe that bass player? That was fantastic to play with him, he was right with me the whole night. An incredibly sensitive player”. I felt as though I couldn’t see the forest through the trees.
The lesson consisted primarily of the use of what she referred to as the jazz minor scales to deal with dominant 7th chords that resolve down a fifth, and those that don’t. This information is already well documented on AllThingsEmily but you can view the actual handwritten lesson she gave me by clicking here.
I asked Emily about ear training and we got on the topic of transcribing and Emily related a funny story. She had heard a Brecker Brothers solo (I think Randy but it could have Michael) she really liked so she started to transcribe it. She was having difficulty with one of the passages in it. After some frustration she called Randy and said (paraphrasing) ‘Look I really like your solo in this tune and I am trying to figure it out but I am stuck on this part, can you help out in some way?…’ after a pause he replied ‘oh yeah…that solo. Well, I threw some quarter tones in there!’ Emily replied ‘so I have been trying to figure out a solo that my guitar doesn’t have the notes for..’ Then with a wry smile on her face she said to me ‘so I bent a few notes and I pretty much got it down” and she laughed.

I also told Emily that I liked her phrasing in her solos and her emphasis on certain notes over others. Pocket Wes comes to mind for example. She shared a technique which had helped her out. She said she would take a 4 note chromatic scale, play it repeatedly but after each repeat, change a note that she would emphasize. For example, in first pass, emphasize the note played by index finger. Second pass, emphasize the note played by middle finger. And so on. She said this especially helped with the pinky finger…Anyway after time it became almost second nature and no matter where she was on the fingerboard she could do it, and it wouldn’t matter which finger.

The Last Letter Again after some time had passed, I decided to write her again, in NY, to ask if she might be coming back to town to perform. I mentioned the name of the Blue Wisp Jazz Club where I thought she would be a really good fit and where there was an outstanding house band. A few weeks passed and she wrote back from Pittsburgh PA. It is postmarked Jan 7 1987. Emily related that at the time she was dealing with some personal issues that had detracted from her work on the guitar. She was gradually beginning to play again, she writes:
“ Now, when I play the guitar (15 minutes or so) I feel like I’m 15 yrs old, happy as a clam”. She was optimistic about the future: “I’m really going to play and write some good stuff now!” “I just had to get my attitude re-focused.”


Performance # 3: solo concert I was fortunate to have seen Emily perform at Xavier University in Cincinnati on 11/8/87.    (Click to view Xavier Program) She performed as part of a music series featuring solo performers, in a auditorium, so she had full attention of the audience. It was the perfect setting. She choose to have Jay Ashby accompany her on trombone and percussion. One tune that stood out that I recall was ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ in which much of the tune was re-harmonized similar to what she had recorded.

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Another that stood out was “Latino Suite” by McCoy Tyner, I had been hearing that tune on the radio lately and later had picked up the cd. I thought it was so cool for a guitarist to pull off a McCoy tune like that, but in her hands it worked well, especially given her penchant for latin music. Again, we have the same affinity for the same tune types I thought.

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She would often close her eyes, and indeed her foot was tapping almost non stop at times. I listened acutely for any mistakes, but I couldn’t pick them up, and if she did make any, she found a way out or a way to undo it, as all the talented ones do (Joe Pass was a master at this).

Swing I happened to attend the Xavier concert with my mother, who also loved jazz and had heard Joe Pass play a few times. After the concert we went to the reception, she remembered me and I introduced her to my mom. Later my mom said something to the effect of how much she enjoyed seeing a woman put on a performance like that, who was so gifted and poised on the stage.

Also, Emily would let out a grunt or some vocalization when she played, open her eyes briefly and they go back to where she was. As a side note, this phenomenon has always interested me, not when it’s so obvious in the case of Keith Jarrett but many others where it happens on occasion. The musician just appears to be in a state subservient to the music and it’s as if there’s more they want to say and just can’t find another way to get it out. As far as I know these were the only two appearances Emily made in Cincinnati. This was also the last time I would see Emily.
I cannot recall if I made contact with her after that time or not. However I am pretty sure I did at least have a phone conversation, because in the Last Letter, she left her mother’s phone number and said I could call there if I wanted to reach her and her number had changed. Also, I have a recollection of speaking with her mom over the phone trying to get her current phone number. Following that time, I was being slowly being drawn away from the music and the club scene a bit, to attend to other things in my life, and I got married in May 1990. Upon returning from our honeymoon, I learned of her passing as a friend had left a message on the answering machine. I was as shocked as anyone. She looked good in Cincinnati and I thought she had the addiction beat. Given her loss occurred the same month as my marriage, the date is forever locked in my memory. The most poignant comment she gave in all of her correspondence that will always stick with me was “All we have is today” .

It’s been over 25 years now since I’ve talked with Emily, but these are a few thoughts that come to mind
as I try to recollect what she was like and interpret the messages she wanted to give to me.


Her passion for music was infectious.
She was warm and genuine, there was nothing artificial about her that I could see. She was open and approachable. When she said I could call her after a lesson, she really meant it. As a teacher, she would pick up where you left off, she would hone in what you needed and where you were at the time. She was so very encouraging, yet she wanted you to work hard.
I am still working on the homework she gave me, I wish I had her discipline.
I had a lesson from another guitarist once who smiled to himself when I had trouble with a passage he was showing me, but she wasn’t that way. Her message to me was,

- don’t worry that you are not going to be the next Joe Pass. Let the music take you where it goes. It's a wonderful ride; jump on even if we travel at different speeds...If you aren’t feeling it at the time, then that’s not the time to have the guitar in your hands. Free yourself from your expectations. Enjoy yourself when you play.

Finally, aside from her creative lines and amazing technique on the guitar, she was a gifted and promising composer who wrote some unique music, covering the musical spectrum from the dark and haunting side, to the playful and gleeful side.
      - John DiSalvo


Emily's parting words of wisdom and excerpts of her letters: SuggestionsPS Layback