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Giving Emily Remler her due, thirty years later

By BILL ROYSTON // The tales and trials of the late guitarist Emily Remler.

May, 1990. Thirty years ago this month, Emily Remler died from an overdose at age 32 in Australia. She was a monster guitarist who never got her due. Her album "East Meets Wes" remains a modern jazz classic, yet she will always endure taglines like 'unsung' and 'underrated.' She was a woman playing in the male dominated jazz scene of the 80's... And she didn't sing!

Emily didn't care. All she wanted to do was gig! I booked her for such a gig at Penn's Landing as part of the free Friday concerts. It was cold and raining in June. There were maybe a thousand people in the amphitheater, a low total for these Friday night performances. It was a lousy night in Philly, but we had planned this as a 'soft,' off-week hit in terms of budget and ultimate draw. Sonny played here the week before, and Grover was scheduled in a couple weeks...

"Maybe we should pull the plug and call this off," I thought to myself as people sat on concrete in the rain. Emily would have none of it. She was sniffling and wheezing, but there was no bullshit. She just wanted to play!

Now, whenever a prominent Jazz guitarist came through Philadelphia, whether it was Kenny Burrell, Sco, or Tuck Andress, a pilgrimage to the South Philly home of guitar master Pat Martino had to be arranged. Pat had suffered a brain aneurysm a year or two earlier, and literally had to learn playing the guitar from scratch. He was recovering, but it was a long process. Sure enough, Emily asked if I knew how to get to Pat's house. I did, but there was no time. It would be too late after the gig. "Maybe tomorrow morning," I said. Disappointed, she plugged in her amp and was ready to kick.

Ready to introduce the band, I looked out into the crowd. There was Pat Martino wrapped in a blanket and a sheet of plastic sitting third row center. Pat Martino never came to Penn's Landing for someone else's gig. I quickly jumped down and asked if he would like to sit in shelter on the side of the stage. He thanked me, and as we moved he grabbed my arm and confided, "She IS the guitar player's guitar player!"

I never got to tell Emily about that moment. She started without my introduction, and played straight for the next 2+ hours. She was on fire that night, but Pat was long gone and the drenched audience had retreated to the bars by the time she finished. She was also getting sicker. The band went back to the hotel, but Emily and I went over to Chinatown for hot soup and tea.

"I'm not on dope. I've been clear for about a year!" she confessed, sneezing and coughing. I believed her. I knew that Emily had had demons, but that she was clean now. You do your research and due diligence on these things when you're paying someone more than a few hundred dollars. Emily went on to talk about her brief marriage to pianist Monty Alexander and a recent break-up with a trombone player in the midwest. She talked about once having 9 agents working for her at the same time, because she wanted to be playing all the time. Most of all, she talked about gigs, jam sessions, and all the many people she had played with.

"Don't ever jam with Dorothy Donnegan! She's a solo artist and definitely not a team player!" she quipped. Or... "(Name withheld) was great! But he had trouble with younger female musicians, and just wanted to get in my pants. He also has problems with guitar chords messing up his piano!" And on and on...

Finally, I had to ask, "You're barely 30, who haven't you played with?"

"Before I die I want to play with McCoy Tyner," she said without pause.

Six months later, I was programming the first, winter Philadelphia Jazz Festival. The highlight was to be a jam session hosted by McCoy, but he wanted a few guaranteed names added for stability. I also wanted a few names to help sell tickets! Violinist John Blake was a natural. Grover wasn't available so we settled for sax man Frank Morgan. Both had played extensively with McCoy. Then, I proposed Emily Remler. McCoy was hesitant. He didn't know her. "Could she hold her own?" he asked.

I had John listen to her music, and it was John as an emissary who went back and sold McCoy. Guitar, violin, piano, sax, plus rhythm section felt weird, but I was determined. I called Emily at her mother's house in New Jersey, and I explained that the money was tight but I wanted her to do an early set with her quartet to make ends meet then do a late night jam with McCoy and others.

There was a pause. She never asked how much; she simply asked me to hold the line. Gone for several minutes, she finally returned, "I'm sorry, but I had to tell my mom that I'm going to play with McCoy Tyner!" I hadn't known her very long, but that was Emily Remler--bold and brash, yet simultaneously naive and sweet.

Emily's early set went fine. As we rushed to the hall for the jam session, I handed Emily an envelope. "We never agreed on what I was paying you, I hope this is okay!" I said. " What? You're paying me, too? " she retorted, and placed the unopened envelope into her purse. She just wanted to play gigs, especially this one.

I introduced her to McCoy and I thought she was going to melt into the stage. But Emily was magnificent that evening as she played far above the clouds. John was impressed. McCoy was so impressed that he gave Emily a prolonged hug in front of the audience at curtain call. It made her night! Even Frank, we later learned, had been impressed.

As we were leaving the theatre, my glee subsided when McCoy expressed concern. He said that Frank had been hitting on Emily, and that they had gone back to the hotel together. I didn't know Frank Morgan well, but McCoy and John did. When we got to the hotel, we tried to reach Emily, then Frank, from the lobby on the house phone. No answer.

She and I were supposed to meet for breakfast the next morning, but Emily never showed up. She was  going to St. Louis for yet another gig, and then on to Australia, which really excited her. Her new manager was waiting for her in St. Louis, but she never got off the plane. He was going to accompany her overseas. Somehow, she made it to Australia, alone and in bad shape. Twenty-four hours later she was found dead in her hotel room. Heroin.

Her manager, who I had never met, called me. He was crying. I hadn't known Emily long, but we cried together as two strangers into the evening. I called John. He called McCoy, who was devastated. "She was a superb player! That night she was the best!" McCoy later confided to me. "She was so young! I'm really glad that I got to play with Emily Remler! "

He was convinced it was Frank, but we didn't know. Frank died a year or two later from the same thing. We'll never know.

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Matt Gustofson

That is quite a story that you have written. I have a number of Emily's albums, including East meets Wes.

I saw Emily and a guitarist named Peter Sprague with bass and drums at a club in Concord California with Carl Jefferson in attendance, the head of Concord Records. I enjoyed her performance very much. I remember her being quite passionate.

Matt Miner

Bill: When's the book coming out?

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