The Rise and Decline of Guitarist Emily Remler

Inside the meteoric ascent and tragic demise of a forgotten giant of jazz guitar

Emily Remler, August 1989

“You should be a woman for a while” – Emily Remler

“When I’m playing, I don’t know whether I’m a girl, boy, dog, cat or whatever,” the guitarist Emily Remler said in late 1983, during an interview for Canadian radio. “I’m just playing the music. When I leave the stage, that’s when people remind me that I’m a woman.”

But just a year and a half later, Remler, then 27, saw things differently. Jazz author Julie Coryell asked her in May of 1985 if she’d had to work harder for acceptance as a woman. “I still do,” she replied. “I didn’t conquer it. Are you kidding? Now they know that I can play. But I still have to prove myself every single time.”

Prove herself she did. By the time she talked to Coryell, Remler had already recorded four albums as a leader for the Concord Jazz label, including one consisting solely of original compositions. And she had wowed legendary guitarists like Jim Hall and Herb Ellis—the latter telling People magazine in 1982, “I’ve been asked many times who I think is coming up on guitar to carry on the tradition, and my unqualified choice is Emily.”

She would also succumb to the dark side of the performer’s lifestyle. Just as her star was rising, Remler grappled with addictions to heroin and dilaudid that would threaten to eclipse her musical profile. She died of a heart attack in Sydney, Australia, on May 4, 1990. She was just 32 years old.

Today, it’s Remler’s music that remains, especially for those who knew and played with her. “I was always blown away by her swing,” recalls bassist John Clayton, who hired Remler for her first recording session. “How could somebody that young play with that kind of maturity of swing? That was the first thing that got me about her, from the first day I heard and played with her.”

That is as it should be. But in 2018, the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up and a crippling opioid crisis, can we afford to forget the finer points of Remler’s story?

Cover of Emily Remler album Firefly
Cover of Emily Remler’s debut album “Firefly” (Concord Jazz, 1981)

The Beginning
She was born in Manhattan on Sept. 18, 1957, and grew up in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Hers wasn’t a musical family per se, but her parents encouraged the kids to explore their interests, and her brother had a Gibson guitar. By the time she was 10, she was using it to teach herself folk songs and music she liked on the radio. Yet at 16, when she graduated early from high school, she was planning to pursue graphic design until she was unexpectedly accepted into Berklee College of Music.

It was at Berklee that she really became familiar with jazz. The melodicism of Paul Desmond captivated her. Then came Pat Martino and, at last, Wes Montgomery, who quickly became her idol. “She was really into Wes,” recalls her then-boyfriend, guitarist Steve Masakowski. “She spent a lot of time trying to develop the thumb technique, and playing octaves.” She also worked hard at mastering the fundamentals. When a teacher told her that she had bad time, she spent uncounted hours practicing with a metronome.

She finished her degree at 18 and moved with Masakowski to his hometown of New Orleans. By her own account, Remler still wasn’t a very good guitarist, but living and working in the Big Easy changed that. “When I got to New Orleans, I was forced to get better and better,” she said in 1982. “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.”

“Early on she wasn’t very confident,” Masakowski says. “She was also a very competitive person—I think that was the driving force behind her improving so much. She would push herself into situations where she had to outperform and show what she could do.”

When Herb Ellis came to town in 1978, Remler boldly introduced herself. “I asked her to play something for me, and when she did, I couldn’t believe what I heard,” Ellis said later. He got her an engagement at California’s Concord Jazz Festival, requesting that she join him on a bill called “Guitar Explosion” that also featured such virtuosos as Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. For Remler it was the beginning of a promising career—one that New Orleans couldn’t contain. Within a year, she had amicably ended her relationship with Masakowski and gone to New York.

She took something with her besides her musical gift. “She always had a weakness for the party life, and maybe overdoing it with substances and things like that,” Masakowski says. “When we were first together, it was a very healthy lifestyle. I even got her to quit smoking. But then I think she started playing with the more party-oriented types of groups, and it started to deteriorate.”

Bright Lights, Big City
Remler’s arrival in New York was a struggle; like so many aspiring players, she was a small fish in a big pond. Yet it had an additional layer of difficulty for her. “There are so many bandleaders who have told me face to face that they couldn’t hire me because I was a woman,” she remarked. “So many instances where I wasn’t trusted musically and they handled me with kid gloves.” Remler used the adversity as motivation to get so good that they’d have to hire her.

She landed a job accompanying vocalist Astrud Gilberto, and began introducing herself to guitarists she heard around town. One was John Scofield, who in 1980 introduced Remler to Clayton, in town from L.A. They jammed together. “She knocked me out,” Clayton says. “I said, ‘Are you gonna be around in a couple months? Because we’re gonna do a Clayton Brothers recording, and it’d be great if you could join us!’ And her eyes widened, and she said, ‘Yeah!’” Remler flew out to California that June to play on the album It’s All in the Family. On the date she again met the president of Concord Jazz Records, Carl Jefferson, whom she’d impressed two years earlier at the Concord Jazz Festival. He signed her to record an album of her own for what was at the time a guitar-centric label.

From there things moved quickly. The album, Firefly, placed her in the august company of pianist Hank Jones, along with bassist Bob Maize and drummer Jake Hanna. On the strength of Firefly, Jefferson extended her contract for three additional albums. Remler was a headliner at the Berlin and Newport Jazz Festivals, and on a Hawaiian jazz cruise. In a column for the Los Angeles Times, jazz critic Leonard Feather named her 1981’s “Woman of the Year.”

Cover of Emily Remler's second album "Take Two"
Cover of Emily Remler’s second album “Take Two” (Concord Jazz, 1982)

She was featured in the music trade magazines, and in the spring of 1982, Remler crossed over into People magazine, where she uttered her most famous quote: “I may look like a nice girl from New Jersey. But inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavyset black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery.”

“The pieces are rapidly falling into place for Emily Remler,” Feather wrote, and this was true for her both professionally and personally: Remler met and married the Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander in ’81.

In New York, she had been leading her own trio with Eddie Gomez on bass and Bob Moses on drums (and John D’earth sometimes joining on trumpet). When it came time to make her third record for Concord, she had enough clout and confidence to insist that the full quartet make the date. The result was 1983’s acclaimed Transition, which marked an increasing focus on her own compositions and a step away from bebop conservatism.

That progress continued with Catwalk, released in early 1985. It was Remler’s first collection of entirely original compositions, many of them flavored with Latin, Brazilian, Indian and African polyrhythms. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” she pronounced in an interview shortly after its release.

Critics agreed. So did guitar great Larry Coryell, who heard Catwalk upon its release. “I … was impressed,” Coryell wrote in his 2007 memoir, Improvising: My Life in Music. “Emily was creative, smart, swung like crazy and had a time feel that was just about the best I had ever heard from any guitarist, male or female.”

Coryell and Remler would soon record a duets album, Together. They hit the touring circuits, playing international festivals as well as clubs and guitar workshops. They also had a brief romance—a new partnership augmented by the dissolution of another. After two and a half years, her marriage to Alexander had ended in divorce. It was, perhaps, a harbinger of more difficult times to come.

Cover of Larry Coryell and Emily Remler album "Together"
Cover of Larry Coryell and Emily Remler album “Together” (Concord Jazz, 1985)

Struggles & Rumors
Remler’s struggles as a heroin and dilaudid addict were no secret. “She had large hands,” the critic Gene Lees wrote after her death. “The backs of them bore tracks—the scars left by needles.” Remler usually said that conflicting tour schedules had ended her marriage. But to Lees in 1987, she admitted that the drugs were a factor too—even after the fact. “After Monty and I were divorced, I … tried to destroy myself as fast as I could.” (Alexander respectfully declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Rumors flew through the insular jazz community: She’d been strung out in this or that country, had scammed a prescription off this or that doctor; you-know-what was the real reason she canceled this or that concert. They were only rumors, however, and those who knew her personally were protective of her—and still are. “Everybody knows about her drug use and I don’t want to talk about that,” says the trumpeter and educator Ellen Seeling, who worked with Remler as part of her fusion ensemble, Deuce. Seeling does note, however, that when Remler contributed to Deuce’s 1986 self-titled album, her self-confidence was quite low. “She didn’t want to be there when anybody else was around, so she dubbed her part,” Seeling recalls. “She was really, really worried about her solo, and she kept going and not getting exactly what she wanted for hours.”

“I noticed that she got a lot of jealousy and resentment from a lot of male musicians,” Bob Moses says. “She was undercut by guys with big egos who didn’t appreciate the fact that this little girl outplayed them most of the time.”

In fact, while Remler usually claimed in interviews that she was beyond gender discrimination—“It’s their problem, not mine,” she said of skeptical male musicians and listeners in 1989—in private it created a struggle. “The fact that she was a girl, she felt was a mark against her,” Masakowski says.

As Seeling explains, even success doesn’t cancel prejudices: “I remember when I would walk in the room for a rehearsal, everybody would stop playing. They’d stare at me. And that didn’t happen only the first time, that would happen every time. I can’t begin to tell you what that’s like.”

The drug fix “makes you not care if the guy in the front row doesn’t like you,” Remler said in her remarkably candid conversation with Lees. “You should be a woman for a while and then you’d see. It’s a hell of a lot different than you think.”

The End
Remler built up a massive tolerance for substances. Moses recalls finding a stash of pills in her car one night when she was driving him home from a gig. “I took half a pill,” he recalls. “The thing hit just as I was going up the stairs, and it was like a knockout drop. I made it up, and I saw the bed there, and I just kinda lunged for the bed. I didn’t want to fall on the floor face first. I woke up two or three hours later and said, ‘Damn! This is from half of one?’ She was taking 10 a day.”

By the end of 1986, Remler had had enough. She quit New York and moved to Pittsburgh, becoming an artist-in-residence at Duquesne University and studying at the University of Pittsburgh with Bob Brookmeyer. At night she worked the local clubs. She continued playing festivals and freelancing on records. But as she kept honing her craft, she also went into therapy, hoping to beat not only her addiction but the demons that hid behind it.

It seemed to be working. In the spring of 1988, she even moved back to New York, taking an apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. She made a bebop record, East to Wes, with Hank Jones, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and took some straight-ahead gigs recording behind pianist David Benoit and vocalist Susannah McCorkle.

She had some less conventional ideas brewing as well. Remler began experimenting with the cutting-edge electronics of the day, including a guitar synth—less Montgomery than Metheny. In 1989, she signed a deal with Houston-based Justice Records to release her newly recorded This Is Me, an album that included her passions for the jazz-guitar tradition and for Brazilian and African rhythms, but pushed hard in the direction of crossover jazz-pop.

She never got to see where the new direction would take her. Remler was on a tour of Australia in May of 1990 when she was found dead in her Sydney hotel room. The official cause of death was heart failure, with no mention of drug involvement. The jazz world knew better.

Emily Remler at the 1987 JVC Festival in Nice, France
Emily Remler at the 1987 JVC Festival in Nice, France (photo: Ray Avery/CTSIMAGES)

#MeToo and Time’s Up
Nearly 30 years on, the issues that complicated Remler’s life and career have not gone away. For one thing, an epidemic of opioid drug abuse has been raging in the United States since a decade after her death. According to the U.S. government, 11 million people are currently abusing the drugs, prescription and non-, leading to approximately 50,000 deaths a year. Superstars Prince and Tom Petty number among the casualties.

Perhaps even more relevant, sexism continues to thrive, as the burgeoning #MeToo movement has made all too clear. Among other things, an ongoing pattern of demeaning and harassing behavior toward female students at Berklee, Remler’s alma mater, has recently come to light. There are plenty of stories circulating about other institutions, venues and bandleaders: As the hashtag suggests, nearly every woman, in and out of the music industry, has at least one to tell.

There are reasons, however, for hope. If #MeToo has revealed the systemic patterns of gender bias and harassment, it has also signaled increasing public awareness of them. “There’s a lot more consciousness happening at the present moment,” says drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who, like Remler, broke through in the 1980s. “It’s opened a lot of eyes—even to women, who don’t realize they’ve been participating in this systematic way of thinking.”

Along with #MeToo has come Time’s Up, a movement demanding equal systemic treatment of women—and, importantly, equal pay. In May, a group of 14 female jazz musicians called the We Have Voice Collective published a code of conduct regarding professionalism, safety and nondiscrimination. Jazz organizations quickly signed on.

Not incidentally, the number of prominent female instrumentalists in jazz has exploded in recent years—another encouraging sign. “There were not a whole lot of really visible woman players at that time,” Moses says of Remler’s heyday. “Now there’s a whole bunch; it’s really not that unusual.” Still, while women increasingly establish solid reputations as horn players, pianists, bassists and drummers, prominent female guitarists remain a rare breed. In 2018, only a few names spring to mind: Chilean-born guitarist and singer Camila Meza; California-based Mimi Fox, who is recognized for her work as a solo artist and as part of the San Francisco String Trio; Mary Halvorson, an experimental and fiercely original guitarist; Leni Stern, who matches jazz and fusion influences with African music; and Sheryl Bailey, a bebop-based virtuoso who salutes Remler as one of her heroes.

“I’m looking for the next Emily Remler,” Carrington says. “For some reason, the guitar just seems like one [instrument] that women aren’t approaching as much. Maybe Emily’s example can inspire more.”

Emily Remler, August 1989
Emily Remler performs at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., August 1989 (photo: Michael Wilderman/Jazzvisionsphotos.com)