Cynthia Sayer is an award-winning instrumentalist, vocalist, and bandleader. While proficient on several musical instruments, Sayer is considered one of the world’s top 4-string jazz banjo players. Her latest album is entitled Joyride.
Spotlight Central recently talked to Sayer about her musical childhood, her work as a professional jazz musician, and what she’s been up to these days.
Spotlight Central: You were born in Waltham, MA, and spent your early childhood years in Wayland, MA, then in Swampscott, MA, before your family moved to Scotch Plains, NJ. Were either of your parents musical?
Cynthia Sayer: My dad was sort of the ultimate music lover but, no, he didn’t do anything musical. Aside from his work as a businessman, he was an artist — a painter and photographer — so the art world was his big passion. My mom was an amateur vocalist and still is. She was involved in various choirs and choral groups, and they did concerts and sometimes competitions. She has always been very shy about her singing — I’ve actually never heard her sing by herself; I’ve only heard her sing with others! But both of my parents were very supportive of all the arts.
Spotlight Central: You’re one of four children, all of whom played different instruments. Which ones did you play growing up?
Cynthia Sayer: Piano was my first instrument, and it remained my first love until I started getting gigs on banjo. I started playing piano at age six. Apparently, I had wanted to play it since I was about four or five but my parents wanted to make sure it wasn’t a passing phase and, also, they felt I was too little. At the age of six, though, I still loved it, so I got started playing it.
I played viola in the school’s music program — that was in elementary school, where you could start playing around fourth grade. I played it in the school orchestra, through middle school, altogether, for about four or five years. I bought a guitar, too, because everyone had a guitar, and I taught myself chords.
In addition, I took drum lessons, but I played orchestral drums where I learned all my rudiments, like paradiddles, and things like that. In middle school, I saw the dance band play during our school talent show and I decided I wanted a drum set, but my parents wouldn’t let me have one and went out and bought me a banjo instead.
So those were my instruments. In my family, at one point, we had me on banjo, my sister on bagpipes, my brother on ukulele, and my other brother playing trumpet — in fact, my brother still plays the trumpet; he’s a music educator, but he was a professional musician for a number of years who graduated from Manhattan School of Music. And my sister now plays the harp and she’s quite good. So growing up, in our house, we had a lot of sound going on — a lot of racket!
Spotlight Central: What kind of music did you enjoy listening to as a kid?
Cynthia Sayer: I listened to the same commercial music that everybody else did. I didn’t really hear a lot of jazz, so I never really identified it as something I liked.
One of the things I was extremely involved in as a kid, however, was musical theater. We did all of the classic musical theater productions, and one of the shows we did that I loved was Guys and Dolls. I especially loved the music from that show, but I didn’t know it was because the music was “swingy.” At the time, I didn’t have any context to understand why I liked it.
Also, there was a children’s theater program that I was heavily involved in every summer. I was in school plays, too, and community theater was a big thing for me growing up, as well — so I guess some of my listening had to do with being involved with theater, in addition to what the other kids were listening to.
Spotlight Central: Meaning “Top 40” pop?
Cynthia Sayer: Yeah, pretty much.
Spotlight Central: You just mentioned that you really wanted a drum set and your parents bought you a banjo instead, but in the past, you’ve said that you were “dazzled” by your teacher, Patty Fischer, the female banjo teacher in your town. What was it about Ms. Fischer that inspired you?
Cynthia Sayer: I’m glad you asked me that because it relates to the importance of role models. I’m just old enough that there were few women out there whom I saw doing such things. Patty was the only grown-up woman I’d met who was an actual professional in the arts. I’d never met anyone like her before. She lived all over the world. She had what, to me, seemed like a very exciting and very non-conventional life because of what I had been exposed to — you know, my town was pretty conservative then.
I was brought up to believe I could do anything and be anything, but I really didn’t see any examples of it for women — except for Patty. She validated to me the possibilities of a very different kind of lifestyle that I found exciting and wonderful. She was also a professional painter, so she worked both as a musician and an artist professionally. I already mentioned to you how my dad was very involved in art — in fact, my great uncles are the renowned social realist artists Moses and Raphael Soyer — and by sheer coincidence, Patty turned out to be Raphael Soyer’s protege, which is really one of those so-freaky things. As a kid, that was magical to me.
Spotlight Central: You’re very well known for playing the 4-string banjo. What was it about the 4-string banjo that appealed to you vs. the 5-string banjo?
Cynthia Sayer: Well, at the time, I didn’t know anything about the different kinds of banjos. My parents got this banjo for me and I found it on my bed. I knew it was a bribe because they didn’t want to buy me a drum set, but I said, “OK, I’ll play the thing.”
When I went to my first lesson with Patty, she explained to me that there were three different kinds of banjos she could get me started on. One was the plectrum, one was the tenor — both are types of 4-string banjos that are common today — and then there was the 5-string banjo, which is way more familiar to the general public. It’s what’s used for bluegrass folk music, old-time music, and country music, and it’s the instrument which most people think of when they hear the word, “banjo.”
So I asked Patty, “Which kind of banjo do you play?” and she said, “Well, I play the plectrum,” so I said, “OK, I’ll play the plectrum.” That was it. I was a kid, you know? I didn’t think about it any more.
And the same thing happened, because I’m left-handed and I play the banjo right-handed. Not a lot of people realize it but, sometimes, if you’re left-handed and a musician, that’s a big question: Do you play left-handed or do you play right-handed? So I also remember when Patty discovered I was left-handed, I asked which way I was supposed to play it, and she said, “Are you ok if I get you started right-handed, because it’s very hard for me to teach you upside down and backwards?” and I said, “Sure!” I mean, there was no further thought to it.
Spotlight Central: We’re told that you started playing gigs professionally as a teenager. Eventually, you went to Ithaca College and graduated with a degree in English and planned to go to law school, but decided on a career in music.
Cynthia Sayer: You really did your homework!
Spotlight Central: We try! But what prompted you to make that decision to go into music, and how did you proceed from that point?
Cynthia Sayer: I was one of these, kind of, achiever kids in school — I finished high school early, I finished college early. I did well — achievement was kind of drummed in my head. I had expectations of myself from my upbringing: “Of course, you’ll get some kind of big job doing something to help the world,” or whatever. I didn’t know what I wanted to be and I thought, “Well, ok, I’ll get a law degree.” My parents were pushing that and I agreed with them. I thought it was a good idea, since I didn’t know what else to pursue, and I figured, “I’ll get the degree and then see,” but I kept putting it off.
I remember this very clearly: I was in college and I was scheduled to take my LSATs the next day, and I felt like I was heading to the guillotine — [laughs] I don’t know why it was that as opposed to some other kind of dire thing — but I felt so terrible about it, I didn’t go. I gave myself permission to wait. I said, “Look, I can take it next year.”
And then I became a musician, really, because I couldn’t think of any other way I could support myself. It wasn’t necessarily because I wanted to be a musician — I just thought it sounded like fun. I thought, “I’ll do that for awhile,” because I was already playing gigs, as you mentioned, and I figured, “OK, I’ll get an apartment.” I didn’t know how much money I could make. I played on the street. I played gigs. I discovered there weren’t enough banjo players in New York City at the time, so people would hire me whether or not I was all that qualified.
And I just kept putting law school off, but it really took me until my late-20s to finally give myself permission to do what I truly enjoyed. It was like I had this idea that it was being a responsible adult to have a more traditional career, and it somehow felt self-indulgent to me, as a kid, to choose being a musician, because it was fun. Work wasn’t supposed to be fun — it’s work! So it took me awhile to sort that out. I thought I was so smart — but I was so clueless! It took me awhile to understand that playing music is a very meaningful thing to do. My job is to give joy to others, so what could be better?
Spotlight Central: In New York, you started working with Woody Allen. You were a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band — with you performing on piano, singing, and doing some banjo playing. You also worked on some Woody Allen movies including The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway. What were those experiences like for you?
Cynthia Sayer: Well, I should point out that I didn’t appear in the movies. I did a number of soundtracks — and some musical coaching for the actors — for, I think, four or five of Woody Allen’s’ films. Purple Rose of Cairo was one of the first ones I did — and it was fun! What can I say? I taught Mia Farrow how to play the ukulele, and I vocal coached Jeff Daniels to sound old-fashioned — to make them both like they were from that 1920’s era.
It was very interesting. Mia Farrow ended up not feeling comfortable playing while she was acting, so it ended up that I played on the movie soundtrack for her. I remember having to play the part over and over again on the uke until it was “poor” enough that it sounded realistic, like someone who had only played a little. I can remember laughing to Dick Hyman, the musical director, saying, “Gee. My first soundtrack, and I had to play as badly as possible!” — or it was my first solo; I don’t remember if it was my first soundtrack — I may have done Sophie’s Choice before that. But, anyway, he was laughing and he said he had played a lot of honky-tonk saloon pianos and had to do that, too, for spaghetti Westerns.
Spotlight Central: Over the course of your career, you played with a number of great jazz musicians including Les Paul, Wynton Marsalis, and Bucky Pizzarelli, in addition to the composer, Marvin Hamlisch — as you mentioned — on the soundtrack for the movie, Sophie’s Choice. Do you have any favorite memories of working with these artists?
Cynthia Sayer: Oh, of course I do. Working with Marvin Hamlisch, people were telling me, “Oh, he can be a stickler,” “Watch out!” or whatever. I don’t remember exactly what they were warning me about, but I thought he was great! There were some engineering problems in the recording studio — we were in one of these wonderful classic studios that used to be here in the city — and he finally got frustrated with what was going on, but I would have gotten frustrated way before he did!
And Woody? I worked with him for a long time. There’s a whole assumption, you know, if you’re a movie star who plays an instrument; professional musicians might snicker about something like that. Woody is very self-deprecating. When he would perform, he had such an impressive soulful connection to playing that when he was on, it was very moving — he could really wail! One difference between him and a professional-caliber player is chops — meaning technique. If he was having an off day musically, he didn’t have the technical skills to cover the way a trained musician would.
But I found him to be a truly soulful player, and he was perfectly nice to work with. You know, all the stories you hear about him are sort of true — he doesn’t say much, he’s claustrophobic, and all that stuff. But I would get a kick out of all of the funny asides he would say. I remember we were in Italy and they gave him an award for something — people were always giving him awards — and he’d come offstage and then he’d make some comment to the side that would be absolutely hysterical!
And that was a really good band. People would come just to see Woody, but we repeatedly learned that they left feeling like they also enjoyed a wonderful musical experience. But speaking of that band, I was invited to be in the band as the pianist, and even though I had studied piano for most of my life, I had studied classical piano. When the group’s leader, Eddy Davis — who sadly passed away from Corona virus this past April — first offered me the job, I turned it down. I said, “Look, there’s so many fabulous pianists here in New York City, why on earth would you choose me?” And he replied, “Because you understand this music. Why don’t you come and join us playing in some jam sessions?”
So we did these jam sessions at what was the Harkness House, and they were private — no audience was invited. They recorded the sessions — and, eventually, they released a recording from them called The Bunk Project. But doing those jam sessions is when I realized that this music has a kind of funky crudeness to it. It’s based on this George Lewis/Bunk Johnson sound and that’s the sound that Woody wants — he tries to emulate the sound of George Lewis on his clarinet, and he’s pretty good at it.
I think most New York pianists have fantastic technical skills, and that was certainly not the case for me, especially playing jazz. In many ways that was one of the reasons why I could be a good fit for the band — I was a rather crude-style pianist, and that was, sort of, historically accurate for this particular kind of New Orleans music. So I was thrown into the ocean and had to swim. I was mortified for the first however-many concerts we did as I got my sea legs but, eventually, I became a competent band pianist of that style. So I guess I sort of learned on the job, which was what I did on the banjo, too.
Spotlight Central: We primarily know you for your banjo playing skills and in fact, in 2006, you were inducted into the American Banjo Hall of Fame. You went on to record nine CDs, including one of our favorites — 2013’s Joyride — and in 2018, you played the Newport Jazz Festival as the first 4-string banjoist to ever appear as a featured artist. What has it been like for you to be a jazz banjo player and, even more so, to be a female jazz artist?
Cynthia Sayer: I appreciate you asking me about that because, I guess, I have two general missions that have evolved by my doing this for my living. One is since the 4-string banjo is way less familiar to the public, it’s become a thing for me to simply reintroduce to the public this instrument which had its heyday in the 1920s and early ’30s. Everybody knew the 4-string banjo then, but they don’t know it now, so one of the things I try to do is re-familiarize the world with this instrument and the amazing musical range and dynamic range that it has.
So that’s one side of it. The other side of it is that, as a woman, I didn’t really understand when I started, that women players were such a rarity. I mean, there were vocalists —but both on my instrument and in my field of early jazz, I saw maybe only a handful of professional women instrumentalists. I toured internationally for 15 years before I played with another woman instrumentalist in concert! That was in Germany. I was a guest player at a concert in Germany and in walked a woman bass player. I can still remember it — I was so surprised.
These days, there are many extraordinary high-level talented women out there, but it’s still way too small of a percentage. I try to make people aware of all the great women out there and all the great talent they should be hiring and acknowledging. And this is not just jazz instrumentalists, but all aspects of the music industry.
At one point, I had the great honor of working with the legendary jazz pianist Marian McPartland. I was a guest on her NPR show, Piano Jazz, and I arranged for her to come and sit in with the Woody Allen band. She asked to do so because she was trying to get Woody on her show. I loved her! She was so amazing, and she was so inspiring to me. I asked her about being a woman in jazz and she was very frank about how hard it was. She told me, “I saw a shrink, which really helped me,” and it was really something to hear, you know, because I had struggled with that situation, too.
Spotlight Central: We have to ask you: speaking of women and speaking of jazz, in the past you’ve told a story about your own grandmother’s exposure to jazz. Can you share that with us?
Cynthia Sayer: Oh yeah! Oh my goodness. My grandmother was born in 1898 and lived to age 106. When I was a teenager and was just starting to get into jazz — when I was still at home living with my parents — we went to visit my grandmother, who had lived in New York City all her life. She loved New York; she was an Upper East-sider all the way. She had very mixed feelings about me playing jazz at all, but it suddenly occurred to me, “She was a young woman in the 1920s!” so, one day, I said to her, “Grandma, did you ever see Louis Armstrong, or Duke Ellington, or Elmer Snowden, my banjo hero?” because she was like right here in New York, you know? And she looked at me like I was an idiot, and she said, “Of course not! I came from a good family.”
Spotlight Central: [Laughs] That’s so funny!
Cynthia Sayer: It’s such a great line and it is very funny — and I tell this story in concerts all the time — but the thing is: it’s also a really big statement about how jazz was perceived in her time. Jazz was something that only wild young women did. She was a “good girl” so she wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and she forever retained that idea. As a result, my parents were not straightforward with her about my chosen career. My grandmother considered it not particularly respectable.
Spotlight Central: Here’s the thing, though: despite that, you still, as we understand, became the subject of a Trivial Pursuit game question! Can you tell us about that?
Cynthia Sayer: [Laughs] Well, honestly, I didn’t know anything about it for a very long time! I found out when I was a guest teacher at a 5-String Banjo Camp. There were a number of extraordinary 5-string players teaching there, including Tony Trischka. I was there as a sort of an experiment — because I’m not a 5-string player — but I was asked to teach a course on jazz. The director said, “Let’s see if anybody shows up.” They did, and my class was full! One of the attendees in my class — a young woman — said to me, “Oh! I got your Trivial Pursuit question right!” And I said, “What are you talking about?” Apparently, it had come out in the late ’90s and I didn’t know anything about it until well into the 2000s. But it was a nice surprise, and I want you to know I am very proud of it!
Spotlight Central: And for people who don’t know the question, can you tell us what it is?
Cynthia Sayer: I’m not sure if I’m going to say it exactly right, but the question was something like, “What major league team was Cynthia Sayer the official banjoist of?”
Spotlight Central: And should we reveal the answer?
Cynthia Sayer: [Laughs] No! Let them figure it out!
Spotlight Central: We know you’ve performed all over the country and in places around the world, but with the current suspension of live concerts what have you been up to?
Cynthia Sayer: Needless to say, like for nearly every other performer, my tours and concerts have been cancelled. So what I’m doing, I imagine, is similar to what a lot of others are doing. I’m retooling for a digital life. For instance, I’m currently in the process of transferring over to a new computer system in order to be able to collaborate remotely as effectively as possible.
Also, I’ve been working on a new music video which I hope to release soon, which is very meaningful to me. Aside from it being upbeat and fun, it’s meant as a statement about music’s power to bring us joy and unite us beyond politics and beyond cultures. The working title is “The Sunshine Project,” because the song in the music video is “You Are My Sunshine.” I picked that song because it seems to be known all over the world — even in Chinese villages.
I toured in China a couple of times with my Joyride Band, and I invited some of the people who were involved in our “tour family” to be in the video including our tour manager, our sound production engineer, some presenters, a person from a collaborative concert we did in Beijing, and even the pilot of our flight from New York to Beijing. He saw me with my purple gig bag, came over and started chatting with me, and offered to take care of my banjo on the flight over to Beijing. It turned out that he’s a fiddler! We’re finishing it up now and hoping for a late-October or early November release. It will be findable online by looking up my name and “You Are My Sunshine.”
And I also want to mention another project of mine. It’s called You’re IN the Band, and it’s my play-along program for learning and practicing jazz and swing music. It’s for players of all jazz instruments and provides the experience of playing along with some top early jazz musicians in the privacy of your home — perfect for this pandemic time.
Spotlight Central: And speaking of playing jazz, for folks who are looking forward to seeing you play live, or hearing live jazz again, do you have any words of wisdom?
Cynthia Sayer: Well, I guess the only words of wisdom I can offer are: I believe that we all need the arts — we all need live music, and theater, and dance. We need the soul-nourishment we get from the arts. So we’ll be back. We will be back.
I have the very good fortune to live very close to Central Park — I’m just a half-block away. I was just jamming with some musicians for the very first time since March, when we were first shut down, and it was like being let out of jail — it was an unbelievable feeling to play live with others again! I also walked around and saw bands everywhere, all over the park. I even saw some of my colleagues, some very well-known artists, all jamming in Central Park. I mean, it was really something.
Musicians have to play. We believe we’ll be back, and we hope that you’ll all wait for us. Please support live music, and during this pandemic, online performances. There are so many artists out there who are really struggling — and not just jazz musicians; artists of all types — so, needless to say, if you have the means, please support them. Show them how much you care and help them stay positive through this difficult time.
And be safe, of course, everybody — be safe!
To learn more about Cynthia Sayer, please go to cynthiasayer.com.
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