She's With the Banjo
Cynthia Sayer on re-popularizing the 4-string banjo and the jazz of the 1920s and '30s
Cynthia Sayer made a career out of doing something she loves. Upon graduation from college, she began to play the banjo professionally, always thinking she would do that until she settled into a more mature occupation. “I had to give myself permission, really, to say I love playing music and there's nothing wrong with earning your living at what you love,” she said. “I made a very good choice for myself. I feel very fortunate. And I still absolutely love what I do after all these years.”
That choice opened many doors for the Upper West Side resident, at home and around the world. Although she loves playing at iconic venues – she is fairly certain she was the only banjoist ever to grace the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House – her talents have brought her to play in Washington, D.C., for two presidents and in the Middle East to play for sheiks and kings.
Other memorable parts of her resume include that she is a founding member of Woody Allen's jazz band, was the official banjoist for the Yankees and had a Trivial Pursuit question crafted in her honor.
On Feb. 9, she will be playing at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center for the first time. She calls the program, titled “Highlights in Jazz,” “a swinging night of music and hot jazz.”Why the banjo? I read your parents bribed you with it in place of the drums.
Yes, that is a true story. And I showed them – I became a banjo player. I'm just kidding. I was planning to go to law school. I did very well in school and my parents encouraged that. I didn't actually know if I wanted to be an attorney, but it seemed like a good suggestion just to get a degree and then take it from there. But I never did go. I became a musician, I thought, just for a few years after my undergrad. I thought one year, and then I thought two years, and then I kept going and never changed. It didn't seem, at the time, like I was being a proper grown-up. I guess I was trained to think differently about what being an adult was all about.You've recorded nine CDs. How can you describe them?
Banjo is, of course, more popularly associated with bluegrass and folk music. When people think of banjo, that's their automatic association. But the 4-string jazz banjo is actually a different instrument. They're both called banjos, but what I play is a different number of strings and it's tuned differently and played completely different. It has a very important and venerable role in jazz history and, unfortunately, it's semi-forgotten. And I have this sort of mission of re-popularizing the jazz banjo because there is a wonderful resurgence of early jazz styles, music from the 1920s and '30s, but people still don't quite connect to banjo as being a very important part of hot jazz sound. And so, I try to show the surprising diversity of the 4-string banjo.How did it come about that you were in Woody Allen's band, playing the piano?
Yes, I actually was the pianist in the band for over 10 years. There was a certain band that played with him for years at Michael's Pub and then the band changed. And the banjo player in the band invited me to play piano. And I said, “There are a million great piano players in this city, why would you ask me? I'm better on banjo.” And then I realized that the particular style that Woody likes to play in is paying tribute to a New Orleans musician named George Lewis. And the band is a sort of a Bunk Johnson- George Lewis-style band. And it's a very particular kind of sound in music. And I realized that I actually was an OK fit on piano because I understood this kind of music, whereas the New York players have this extraordinary technical skill and they didn't really tend to connect to this style. I loved the band. It was really great. I did play banjo with them sometimes, whenever the regular banjo player, Eddy Davis, couldn't make it. So I've actually played banjo with the band many times as well, but my regular chair was on piano.You were the official banjoist of the Yankees which spawned your very own Trivial Pursuit question.
[Laughs] Well, it's so funny because I'm not a big sports fan, but no matter where that is on my resume, people always find that. I'm actually a Trivial Pursuit question as well. [Laughs] I didn't even know about it. Somebody came up and told me, “Oh, I got the Trivial Pursuit question right about you.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And then I learned that there's a question, I don't remember how it's worded exactly … “Cynthia Sayer was the official banjoist for what baseball team.” It was a gig in town and I was part of the band and played a bunch of home games and special events and so on. And I met some of the ballplayers. It was interesting. I enjoyed the sport talent. I never bothered to pay attention to who was playing who, but I appreciated their athleticism. And I saw a couple World Series games. It was cool. The rest of the guys were all big ball fans, I was the only one who wasn't.Tell us about Highlights in Jazz. What can audiences expect from that?
I'll be sharing the bill with a Grammy-award-winning band, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. They're a 1920s jazz band and they are absolutely fabulous. We're going to be splitting the concert. He's going to do the first half and my band is going to do the second half. If visitors want a real swinging night of music, this is the event to come to. I'm really looking forward to it. Vince has a lot of my colleagues, who are top players, in his band. I love seeing them myself. And then we'll go a little more banjo-focused in the second half, but I'll still have some fabulous musicians with me who will also be soloing a lot. And of course, my secret guest artist as well.
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