Monday, February 26, 2018

Emily Remler: Jazz Guitarist

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Her time is so sure, so flowing, that it’s as natural to her as breathing. So is her warmth - of tone and conception. Emily’s a natural story-teller, keeping the narrative line alive with an exact sense of dynamics and color.”
- Nat Hentoff, Jazz critic and writer

“Emily was equally adept at playing with or without a pick in such diverse styles as bop, jazz-rock, and Latin music; her playing incorporates fluid eighth-note passages, doublings at the octave in the manner of Wes Montgomery and blues phrasing.”
- Jim Ferguson, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“Remler's senseless early death (from heart failure while on tour in Australia) deprived us of a talent that seemed on the point of breakthrough. While her early role-models were conservative ones in terms of her instrument - Christian and Montgomery, specifically - her tough-minded improvising and affinity with hard-hitting rhythm sections let her push a mainstream style to its logical limits.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

I never knew the circumstances of guitarist Emily Remler’s death until I read about them in the following essay and interview written and conducted by Gene Lees.

One moment she seemed to be a fixture on the Jazz scene of the 1980’s and the next thing I heard was that she didn’t make it out of the first year of the next decade.

She died on May 14, 1990 from heart failure that may have been caused by her addiction to opiates. She was thirty-two years old.

There’s too much talk these days about confronting demons, promoting self-help and good health through a variety of commercial means and developing greater self-awareness by a variety of consciousness-raising techniques.

Whatever the reasons for Emily’s self-destructive behavior and notwithstanding the many suggestions of what she could have done about them, I thought she was one heckuva Jazz guitarist and I’m sorry her voice has gone silent.

Not many musicians are good at playing Jazz. Emily was one who could play the music at a very high level and it was a tragedy to lose those talents at such a young age. Dying should be reserved for the old.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember Emily on these pages with Gene’s essay serving as a form of tribute.

© -  Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Sometimes she wore a jump suit on the bandstand, playing with her eyes shut, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other, the guitar slung on a shoulder strap, her faced tilted up as if she were imploring a god unknown to send her ideas. Other times she sat on a chair with her legs crossed tailor-fashion, seeming to embrace the instrument, like a little girl cuddling a doll. She was improbable: white, middle class, a product of the affluent Englewood Cliffs area of New Jersey, and she was, before she turned thirty, one of the finest jazz musicians of her generation.

If you know her work only from her Concord albums, excellent as it is, you have not encountered the scope of her playing. The albums are moderately conservative, middle-of-the-road jazz. I was impressed by them as they came onto the market in the course of the last seven years. Then, on November 14, 1987, in Pittsburgh, I noted that she was working in a club there and went to hear her. 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. I returned to hear her on two more nights.

The jazz world is a very small one, and there were rumors about her. The story was out that Emily Remler had fallen victim to what has often seemed—from a time before Charlie Parker—like the endemic curse of the jazz profession. Heroin. People who had never even met Emily Remler were troubled by the stories about her. But she seemed now to be on the rather long list of jazz musicians who had beaten the problem.

A three-year marriage to the brilliant Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander ended in 1985. He had tried to help her break her habit, but in the end it was too much for him to handle. They remained close.

That's what she was doing in Pittsburgh, working it out it away from the familiar haunts, working on the fears and self-doubts that had given rise to the problem. She was studying composition at the University of Pittsburgh with Bob Brookmeyer and, after that, with avant-garde composer David Stock.

She was born in Manhattan on, she said, September 18, 1957, the youngest of three children, her father a meat broker, her mother a psychological social worker, both born in Brooklyn. Her sister became a lawyer and her brother entered the U.S. diplomatic service. Emily never knew financial insecurity. The legend of the poor boy forging his way to the top in jazz is not entirely without foundation, and Louis Armstrong was its classic exemplar. But the majority of jazz musicians, black and white alike, have come from the comfortable middle class. So that part of her story is not as strange as it might seem.

She got interested in music through the folk movement, and then rock. What was atypical is that she had gone on to discover jazz, and then not only entered a field that has severely discriminated against women even while its practitioners have been in the forefront of the demand for racial equality, but became one of its most masterful young players.

In her book American Women in Jazz, Sally Placksin documents the cases of women of genuine ability who have been driven out of the profession, or at least pressed to pursue it only as a sort of hobby. There have been a number of excellent women jazz players, including Melba Listen, Carol Britto, Patty Bown, Mary Lou Williams, Margie Hyams, Billie Rogers, Patrice Rushen, and others whose names are forgotten because they succumbed to the pressures put on them by the men around them and simply quit, Lester Young's sister among them. The guitarist Mary Osborne told me that she had never felt that she has suffered from discrimination, but she is the only woman jazz player I ever heard say that. The fine alto saxophonist Vi Redd said she has suffered far more discrimination as a woman than she has as a black. Anne Patterson, who plays all the woodwinds from oboe on down, sometimes plays baritone saxophone in the Nat Pierce-Frank Capp Juggernaut band, and leads the all-woman band called Maiden Voyage, can tell you endless tales of discrimination. Marian McPartland says that when she has hired a woman, such as drummer Dottie Dodgion, for her trio, male musicians would ask not "How does she play?" but "What does she look like?"

Some years ago, Stan Getz played Donte's in North Hollywood. Playing piano in his group was Joanne Brackeen. She was at the top of her form that night. For some reason the place was full of piano players. Her playing was powerful, propulsive, wildly inventive — anything but the deferential and delicate music women jazz players are assumed to produce. And every one of those pianists was seriously upset by her, genuinely disturbed, including some highly accomplished musicians. So this phenomenon is real,

A few months after the Pittsburgh engagement, Emily played a job in Los Angeles. I spent an afternoon with her. Her room was on the second floor of the motel. Below it was the usual motel swimming pool overhung by the usual California palms, and the laughter of children rose in the usual California sunlight. There were bottles of Evian water on the dresser. Emily was wearing black slacks and a white blouse. She sat cross-legged on the bed. She was not small and, as she pointed out, she had large hands. The backs of them bore tracks — the scars left by needles, those wrinkled lines looking like tiny railroad tracks that I knew all too well from seeing them on Bill Evans. I suppose they bothered me more because I had never seen them on a woman. She had a rather large nose and she wasn't conventionally pretty, but there was something attractive about her. And something that made me feel protective toward her. She seemed so eager that day, looking to her future.

"You're one of those players who don't hold back," I said. "Jazz is not a holding-back music. Paul Desmond may have played delicately, but he didn't hold back. Bill Evans may have played with great sensitivity, but sensitivity is not an exclusively female quality."

Emily, who had a musical voice slightly colored by a New York City accent with softly dentalized d's and t's, said, "That's a point I was going to make. Music is sexless. I think everyone has something that is feminine, something that is masculine. I'm very confused about that as it is, now that I have opened myself up to having women as friends for a change, after hanging out with the guys my whole life and wanting to be one of the guys. I'm finding out how incredible women really are. When I see a woman that is good at what she does and is confident and does things with conviction — I guess 'confidence' is the key word here —I just admire her so much. Women inhibit themselves as a product of society, or what their mothers taught them, or whatever it was when you're coming up. Women get the message that they're supposed to get married, have children, that's their function, and that's it. My mother never gave me that message. It was always: Achieve. Do well. Maybe a little too much of that, which I drive myself crazy about. I grew up with this thought that anything I applied myself to, I could do."

Life expectancy at birth in nineteenth-century America was about thirty-five, not much different from what it had been during the Roman Empire. I pointed out to Emily that when a husband and wife had to have ten children in order that two or three might live to the adult years, there may have been some reason for the division of labor along sexual lines. But that has changed, and given the advancing destruction of our fragile environment by the effluvia of our own excessive population, women are gradually being allowed to do something other than breed.

"I'm not into sitting and crying about it," Emily said. "I'm into doing. I never was real bitter about the fact that there are so many bandleaders 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 drummers handled me with kid gloves because they figured my time wasn't strong,"

"Yeah, but Emily," I said, "realistically, a lot of guitar players have got flakey time."

Emily said, "It just so happens that I don't. That's something I'd like to talk about — the holding back thing that you mentioned. It seems that a lot of women don't get into the time, really hit it. That's a very big psychological trick. You have to be confident to be into the time like that. You have to know where it is. Herb Ellis said to me once, 'If you don't know, you don't know.' He meant someone who doesn't know that they're off, and that they don't know that they don't swing. And that's a huge subject. There are some people I play with that you can't not swing, it's so wonderful.

"You have to have your innate sense of the time, and you have to believe in yourself that your sense is correct. Especially when there's some big burly guy at the other side of the stage who doesn't like the fact that you're there anyway. And he's not going to give you an inch, he's not going to acknowledge that you're correct. You have to believe in yourself. In some ways I have a lot of belief in myself. I just know that women are going to come out more and more with this conviction, as soon as they work on themselves properly. Women can do anything, anyone can do anything. 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. Okay, it sucks, being in this position. But: get so good that you surpass it.

"It's not going to hurt you to be a great player. That's what I wanted to be anyway. If that's part of the motivation, fine. But it's not part of the motivation any more. It was when I first started at Berklee. I'll show these guys!"

And she did. Emily was graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 1975. She said that she still played very badly at that time. "I had a boyfriend, a guitarist from New Orleans. The plan was that I would move down to New Orleans. On my way to New Orleans, I stopped in Long Beach Island on the shore in New Jersey, and rented a room, and proceeded to quit smoking cigarettes, and learn to play. In that two months, I lost twenty-five pounds. I was just on a discipline trip. I could have been a Spartan! I want to do that again! I know I'm capable of it. Will power is not the question. I have a tremendous amount of will power.

"After that I went down to New Orleans. I still wasn't very good, but I had a lot of ideas. The boyfriend, Steve Masakowski, was an incredible guitarist, and still is, and still lives in New Orleans. He's a monster. The competitive atmosphere was still there, because I'd hear him practicing through the wall. I started to play all the shows at the Blue Room of the Fairmont Hotel, all the Vegas acts, Joel Grey, Ben Vereen, Robert Goulet, Nancy Wilson. I got a gig with her. Besides that, I was doing bebop gigs, Dixieland, and traditional New Orleans stuff. I had this thing, which I still have, to do it right. Don't sit and put this type of music down until you can do it as good as the best person who does it. For instance, I can't play country music like Roy Clark. Not that I would want to. But I have no right to say that that is invalid music. I like bluegrass a lot. And I'm into the Irish music that it comes from. I'm not, thank God, one of these snobby jazz musicians who put down everything except jazz.

"The reason I am so eclectic is that I get such satisfaction out of doing different types of music that sometimes I'm not sure what my true stuff is. I have confidence that the more I work on myself as a person, the more that the music is going to open up. I'll notice progress in sounding like my own voice and in my satisfaction in music by doing other things than practicing or playing. By figuring out things that have been bothering me for years, that clutter me up and make me have limits, and make me worried. Clearing me out of all sorts of things. For example, when you have a resentment against someone, let's say in the band, it clouds your ability to be creative, to be happy that evening. Sometimes you can turn it into so much anger that you can get into a weird I-don't-care stage, and sometimes you play good then. But if you work on those things, you can clear them out to get to your own voice. It's occurred to me in the last few years, it's not even the notes and the chords so much any more, it's the person. I never said more than two words to Bill Evans, I talked to him once, but I know what he was like.  I know it. I'm positive. I never met Wes Montgomery, but I knew what he was like before I asked every person who ever knew him. I knew what Joe Pass was like. He is exactly like he plays. Things come out in the playing. If the person has intelligence, and humor, and creativity, or is introverted."

"I know an outstanding exception, though," I said, and Emily said, "If you mean . . . " And she named a man the beauty of whose playing and the perversity of whose personality have always presented an irresoluble contradiction to other musicians. We both laughed hugely. "Actually," she said, "I've watched him over the years, and he's changed. There's a lot of good inside."

"The relationship of personality to playing is very strong in jazz," I said. "Jazz musicians, generally, even talk the way they play. They sing like they play."

"Yeah, I can see that, that they play the way they talk." Then she said, "What was Coltrane like?"

"Soft and gentle. A very sweet man. I liked him a lot. Tell me, how did you get from folk music to jazz, from Englewood Cliffs to Berklee in Boston?"

"During the Black Panther movement, we were bussed to the Englewood high school instead of the nearest one. We grew up with Italian and Jewish kids. I hadn't been exposed to black people, I was already listening to a lot of blues music. I just wanted to be friends. They didn't want to be friends with us. They beat us up, they stole our money, they burned white girls' hair—I had very long hair. It was very frightening. For that and a few other reasons, I cut school constantly. I just wasn't into it. I was into having parties and being a hippy, a very young hippy. So I was sent away to boarding school, but it was a hippy boarding school, an experimental school where you could do anything you wanted. It closed after the year I was there.

"During boarding school, I played folk music. I listened to rock music, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. I was about fifteen years old when I came to dream that I wanted to be a blues player, so I listened to B.B. King and Johnny Winter and all these people. I played my brother's Gibson ES 330, which I still play today. I have a few other guitars, but I keep coming back to that one. I played with my fingers, I did all sorts of strange things, but now I realize I was always working on my music. I was always singing along with things. I would sing along with Ravi Shankar's music for Bangla Desh, this whole raga piece, I could sing it from beginning to end. Weird stuff that my friends couldn't do. I had a weird ear. There was something different between the way they listened to music and the way I did. I remember we were listening to the Rolling Stones, which I loved. I was singing the saxophone solos and the guitar solos, I wasn't with the lyrics. I started playing some of the guitar things, the very repetitive rock things where they stay on three chords forever. I'd get off on that. I'd sit in my room, discovering that that was a way of leaving the planet. I loved that. Until this day, I've found that that's the best way for me to practice-—-just jamming. I realized when I was about twenty-one that I knew how to get better. There are a lot of people who study who don't feel they know how to get better. I was just out of Berklee, and it came to, 'Why don't I practice what I'm going to play?' From then on, I'd tape myself playing some backgrounds for the songs I was going to record. I put the metronome on to make sure I'm right. And then play over it. I still do it to this day. I'm getting a four-track for my bedroom.

"Schubert supposedly used to play guitar in bed," I said.

"I do that!" she said. "I used to sleep with my guitar. I'll just sit in my room and play a phrase over and over until I feel comfortable. And if I can't do something, I stop the tape and do it twenty times until I am comfortable."

"If you started out playing folk and rock things, when did you get beyond the phase of the grips and begin to see scales across the fingerboard?"

"That didn't happen till I was at Berklee."

"I've watched the way your hands work," I said. "You think a little as if you were playing a keyboard instrument."

"That really makes me happy that you can hear that. I think like a keyboard so much that sometimes I think it's bad. With me, I don't know about anybody else, if I can't hear the phrase, I won't be able to execute for anything. I play everything that I can sing or can hear, and I always was that way, and always will be. There are many people who play by rote. I don't look at the neck because I don't relate to patterns. I hear, I hear. I've tried to do guitaristic licks, and I screw them up. Even ones that I could get easily. Because I don't hear them right there in the music. George Benson said to me, 'You're great when you're playing what you believe in.' I cannot force myself to do what other people want me to do. It's very confusing, it's the way we're taught as we're growing up — that you do things the way that's acceptable to do, in some many aspects of life. You don't jump on cafe tables and yell. And all of a sudden, with what we've chosen to do in the arts, you're supposed to do what you really feel like doing. You live in a double life. You still don't jump on cafe tables and yell, but in your work you are supposed to do what you feel. So it's very common for musicians to be eccentric, and not conform. Because they can't just all of a sudden change. If I were to conform to the masses, I would have been a rock-and-roll guitarist, wearing silver suits." She laughed at herself. "Instead of red jumpsuits. I could have been very successful and rich doing that.

"In New Orleans, I learned to play. By the time I got back to New York, I was pretty good. I met Herb Ellis in New Orleans, and he recommended me for the Concord Festival, where I got to play with Ray Brown. I was twenty. Carl Jefferson told me that he was going to sign me [to the Concord Jazz label], I thought, 'This is it, my future is set.'

"They wanted me to be straight ahead. Since I want to do everything well, I decided that I would write tunes that were more like standards, learn a lot of standards, learn how to play within the limitations of jazz tonal progressions, get my chops up in bebop.

I needed a guide. And the people that I liked in those limits, straight-ahead mainstream bebop, were Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and people like that. I pretty much copied them. I learned a new Wes Montgomery tune every day. I copied his phrasing. Above all, I copied his timing. He was unbelievable. But I didn't hear from Concord for a while, and I proceeded to move to New York, and I got a gig with Nancy Wilson. I also worked with Astrud Gilberto, and in Washington D.C., I ran into Herb Ellis again. I was a better player by then, and I got a contract with Concord."

"Back to that position of the transition from playing in that folk way, how did you do that? Through a teacher?"

"I never took a guitar lesson in my life, not really. I noticed that people who do things well do them with a minimum of effort. I learned basic scales and melody patterns so that I could vary in that vertical way. I decided, 'Why move up and down?' I've watched people, I watched myself in the mirror, I did scales and arpeggios, but I started right away doing melodies and finding the ways that other guitar players did them. You can, if you get good at transcribing, find from the timbre which string they're using. So I copied Pat Martino's way of doing things. He's a master of the instrument, his technique is astounding, you can count on him doing everything in the most logical way. And maybe I copied some of his fingerings, due to transcription.

There's a lot of illogical stuff that I do, though. I have to play everything that I hear, and there sometimes isn't time to work it out, and there's a lot of reaching for stuff in ridiculous positions that, I realize if I review it later, I could have done some other way. But I just have to get it somehow, and my will to get it is stronger than my knowledge of the guitar.

"For instance, I play solo guitar and try to back myself up with chords, like Lenny Breau did. But I do not have Lenny Breau's knowledge of the guitar."

"You do know," I said, "that Lenny was a totally intuitive player. He played entirely by ear, he'd had no formal training, and no knowledge of formal theory."

"We're talking about two different kinds of knowledge."

"Of course. His knowledge of the instrument itself was enormous."

"I agree. And I don't know the instrument the way he did. The thing I do best is ..." She laughed. "I'm resourceful. I'm a good hustler on the guitar. I'll hustle the phrase that I want, I'll work until I get it. It's the same thing I use to win at pool and pingpong without being the greatest pool or pingpong player. When I call on myself to put extra energy into a tune or a phrase, it's from the thing that makes me win at pingpong. It's just a will to do something."

"Now. We're onto a characteristic that is not generally considered feminine. Overt will. And throughout history, women's will has been suppressed and thus driven underground. Sometimes, when it isn't destroyed, it becomes devious. In order to get around men, many women will lie if necessary to get their way. Women are supposed to be submissive, but they have as much will as any man. They just hide it."

"You're right! I like that. It's something I am admiring more and more in women: will. I don't know. All I know is that the more I be like I'm supposed to be, the more I be like me, the better I get at music, I believe I have a tremendously strong will. I don't know what masculine or feminine is. I can tell you that I like the way dresses look, but I can't wear them onstage because I can't sit with my legs crossed all night. I don't deny that I'm a woman. And people say stuff about this, and have been doing it for years. Why don't you wear something more feminine, something flowing? It's just that I don't want a dress swaying when I move. The rest of the time, I like to be stylish, I like a lot of modern things. I'm split between two things. I love flowing, very sophisticated, very simple dresses. I don't like flowery or lacy things. I love dresses. But I love baggy pants too. It's strictly a matter of comfort. I don't identify masculine or feminine by what you wear. But people do. And how can you change millions of people?"

"I think it already is changing. Ever since Marlene Dietrich wore a pair of slacks in a movie. Look at the Scottish kilt, and the traditional old battle dress of Greek soldiers. Now, about this self-destructive business ..."

"We've noticed," she said, "how people of great creative talent often have a dark side that wants to destroy it and themselves. I'd say that the biggest fear for an artist is that if they stop destroying themselves, they won't have that other, good side. It's very easy to see the good side when you're doing bad. It's the one pure light that you have. You get to be afraid of a balance, of mediocrity, you get to be afraid that you won't get these brainstorms. How much more precious is it to succeed coming out of the gutter than it is to be comfortable and balanced and healthy. It's the misconception, but I have a feeling that a lot of musicians have problems with this — a feeling that they will not be able to create unless there's havoc and chaos."

"Well, a friend of mine said, 'Confronted with order, the artist will create disorder. Confronted with disorder, he will create order.' All creative people are perpetually trying to shake up the pick-up sticks: Let me create chaos so that I can create something out of it. Let's see if I can do that trick again."

Emily laughed. "So then, maybe I really should clean my apartment! Maybe if it was totally orderly, I could write better."

"No. That's not the point. When I am writing heavily, the room becomes a disaster area. And when I am through, I have to clean it up, because I can't go into the next phase of disorder without having cleared away the disorder from before. The artist needs raw clay to make the statue. If the only piece of clay I have is the statue I just made, which already bores me, then I will tear it apart to have the clay to make the next one. The process interests the artist more than the result, though he has to sell the result to make a living."

"So what's you're saying," Emily said, "is that this is totally normal. That's something to think about. I've been trying to get rid of it, and it hadn't occurred to me that maybe it's needed."

"Well there's a balance to be found, to be sure. I do know that many artists consider their neuroses are part of their talent, and cling to them. And sometimes they may be right. I know that depression goes with the creative process, and most psychiatrists know it too, and there assuredly is a manic quality about the compulsion to create art."

"What my therapist says is, Why am I creating this guilt and pain to create?"

"Nobody wants unhappiness. If you can get rid of it, get rid of it. On the other hand, if you get a good tune out of your guilt, play it. The artist is just that selfish and just that ruthless. It's like William Faulkner's comment in his Nobel acceptance speech, which shocked everybody. He said that the Ode on a Grecian Urn was worth any number of little old ladies."

Emily giggled. "It's unbelievable, isn't? After Monty and I were divorced I played great for a while on that pain. I really did. I also tried to destroy myself as fast as I could.

"You know, I had a strange experience in Michigan about ten years ago. As you might imagine, I've had a lot of requests to play with all-female groups. And when I was twenty-one, some very good musicians had this band and asked me to do a gig in Michigan, good money and just one set. I was going to get out of New York for a couple of days and be in the Michigan lake country. It was a very enlightening experience. It was eight thousand gay women. They have a different language to desex the language. Woman, singular, is womon. Women, plural, is womyn, for example.

"It's one thing to accept that sort of thing, but it is quite another to be in the severe minority. I felt weird. But there were some things I really loved about it. There was no bullshitting. There was no manipulating with charm. It didn't matter what you wore, whether you combed your hair even. People were taken for what they were, not what they looked like. And the view on beauty was a lot different than Hugh Hefner's standard.

"I was with one of the girls in the band. A woman we would consider fat walked by and I heard a girl say, 'Isn't she beautiful?' Look, I personally know women who stick their fingers down their throats to try to lose ten pounds. And there are a hell of a lot of schoolgirls developing complexes about being thin. I had that problem.

"There is a psychiatrist here in Pittsburgh who says that the people with the lowest self-esteem are the ones with the most gifts. This psychiatrist says that 99 percent of the problems he deals with, even to psychosis, are based on distorted self-perception, low self-esteem. I was raised to think that if I was thin, people would like me more. And the truth is that I'm not built that way. My body has a tendency to be a certain weight, but I have not accepted it my whole life. To me, I seem overweight. It was very interesting at that gay thing in Michigan to see that they don't have that perception, they canned all that. I'll tell you something else: there are a lot of women in this world who are using drugs to stay thin. They're killing themselves, their bodies, their souls, their minds, to be fifteen pounds lighter and please American society."

"What else has it done to you, being a woman in the jazz world, and a nonconformist in a conformist society?"

"Well, some musicians didn't trust me to be able to comp, which I love to do, and I feel I'm very good at it. If they want to play up the woman thing, women are trained to nurture people, make people feel good. I comp well. I can put my ego aside, as opposed to some other people who comp so loud and pushy, 'Look-at-me.' I know how to comp to make someone else sound good. I love to do it. It gets me out of myself. But I've ended up being a leader, more than a side man. Even at nineteen years old, the minute I could play a blues, they used to push me out front, because of the novelty. So I feel a little deprived. I wish someone would take me under their wing and teach me further, because that's how I get better, playing with great musicians. At this point now, I am ready to be a leader."

"You may be in the position," I said, "of having no choice but to be a quote star. I think Bill Evans passed beyond the possibility of being a side man."

"Yeah, but he was a side man with Miles. Do you think Miles would hire me?

"I wouldn't be surprised if he would."

"If I played with Miles, I would have to play some rock-and-roll and I wouldn't want to. But that's a matter of taste.

"I hear a lot of music that fuses rock and jazz together. And I find myself listening to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. I'd rather hear the traditional rock-and-roll.

"The thing that makes me play with conviction is the same thing that makes me swim extra laps in the pool. It's from your gut. But I don't play from I'll show this guy. I notice that anybody who wants to cut anybody is not playing in the creative vein, and is not going to reach the peaks I want to reach. It's about letting go of yourself and becoming a channel — of love and God. That's what I believe. You can't do that by saying 'I'm going to show them this or that.' If I want to become a channel for God, which you can consider to be a lot of different things, you have to get rid of stuff, and be free."

I said, "I have to go and do my work in a cave, silently."

"That happens to me. I tune out as a protection. I tuned out for years as a protection."

"Well, look at Bix Beiderbecke, at Charlie Parker, there are all sorts of people who put up a chemical shield."

"Sure, because that makes you not care if the guy in the front row doesn't like you. That's why anger sometimes works, you can play better because you don't care. But it all comes down — I'm hoping this will take care of it — to feeling okay about yourself, that you deserve to be there, that you have something valid to say, that you have a lot of love to give, and you have a gift, and you have a right to be up there, and if somebody doesn't like it, that's his loss. That's the attitude I want. This guy can't make me or break me, this musician telling me to play this or that is not valid — it's what I feel. If I could get to that, I'd like to achieve it. I'm getting a little of it now.

"I was with a group in Europe last summer. Some drummers lack a little subtlety or they just prefer music that's loud and raucous. The feeling of aggression and speed is more what they're interested in. This isn't all drummers. This drummer said to me and what a lot of drummers have said to me, and that I bought and accepted, 'You gotta play louder, I can't hear you, you've gotta play harder. My favorite guitarists are Hendrix and McLaughlin, you oughta play more like them.' And I thought, 'Okay, I'll turn up my amp tonight and I'll play more rock and roll.' And then I stopped and said to myself, 'I can't believe I'm buying this package for the thousandth time.' And you see it's easier for him to tell me what to do because I'm a woman, and more important, it's easier for me to take it. And for the first time, I said back to him, 'Why don't you start listening to where I'm at? Why don't you come up to my level? Why don't you learn how to be romantic and subtle a little bit.'

"I couldn't believe I stood up for myself like that. So it's getting better, and the better it gets the better I'll be as a musician and the better I'll feel about that guy who doesn't like me.

"You should be a woman for a while and then you'd see. It's a hell of a lot different than you think."

Some time in the course of those days in Pittsburgh I asked Emily if she planned to stay there. No, she said. When she felt she was ready, she planned to move back to New York.

A month or so ago a pianist friend called me. He mentioned in the course of the conversation that he had joined Alcoholics Anonymous. "I never knew you had a problem with that," I said.

"It was mostly on the job," he said.

Somehow Emily Remler's name came up. He had never met her, and yet he said, in a voice soft with concern, "How is she doing?" And you knew exactly what he meant.

So I called her number in Pittsburgh. I was given a referral number, the area code being that of Brooklyn. I called it. After a year and a half in Pittsburgh, she was back in home terrain, living near Sheepshead Bay.

She had just completed a new album for Concord with Hank Jones. She was full of plans and the enthusiasm in her voice told me the answer to the question before I asked it. "How are you doing?" I said.

"I'm doing just fine," she said.

I was pulling for her. I wanted her to make it. Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan and Hal Gaylor and many more I know made it.

In May of 1990, I got a call from a friend who told me Emily had been found dead in her hotel room in Sydney, Australia. Whatever the proximate cause of her death, I could not help feeling there were other and underlying factors. Perhaps she died of being a woman in a profession dominated by men. Perhaps she died of the contradictions she lived with, her confusion about her own femininity. The sensitivity that makes it possible to produce good art makes life painful for those who possess it. Chemicals may not enhance the creativity, but they dull the pain, or seem to, for a little while. In the end they add to it.

Emily Remler was a superb musician, and on her way to being a great one. I will always see her sitting cross-legged on the bed, reaching out for life and looking like a little girl. She didn't make it.”


  1. THANKS E.R.

  2. Thanks for posting this. What a tragic loss. She left a terrific body of work; she was destined for greater things.

  3. In the late 80s I played a jazz guitar duo gig at a Jewish nursing home in Whitestone, Queens NY with Emily. We both wore sunglasses...and I heard this:
    1st woman "Oy...I think she's blind"
    2nd woman "Oy ...I think he's blind too"
    1st woman "It's so nice dey hire di handicapped!"

    After an array of jazz tunes, an old guy yelled out "Play something we Baby Face!"
    Emily started it off and everyone began singing along "Baby got the cutest little"
    Then she takes 10 chorus, I take 10 chorus , we trade 8s, then 4s , and we play it out. Though a full 10 minutes had elapsed, as soon as they heard the melody no time had passed, again they started singing ....."Baby got the cutest little baby face"

    Emily had long curly dark hair...not unlike male rock musicians of the era. And with a 335 in hand, she had a masculine gait. As we were leaving with our guitars, one old guy in pajamas smiled and said " vere vonderful!".


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