Breaking the Boundaries of Banjo with Cynthia Sayer
Multi-award-winning instrumentalist/vocalist/bandleader Cynthia Sayer is acclaimed by musicians, critics, and fans alike as the top 4-string banjoist in the world today. Praised for her “drive and virtuosity” by the New York Times, Cynthia enchants audiences with her electrifying, swing-based performances and captivating stage presence wherever she appears.
An inductee into the American Banjo Hall Of Fame, and the first 4-string banjoist to be on the cover of International Musician (forthcoming), Cynthia is the first banjoist winner of the 2019 Bistro Award and 2018 Global Music Awards. She garnered cheering crowds and her usual standing ovation at the iconic 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, where she was also the first 4-string banjoist in their history to appear as a featured artist. Other recent USA festivals include appearing as a Special Guest at the 2019 Django Reinhardt Festival in NYC, headlining at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival, the 2017 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, and numerous others. Multiple international festivals have honored Cynthia as “Festival Favorite” and readers polls have named her “Favorite Living Banjo Player,” “First-Choice Headliner,” and “Best Banjo Player.”
Ascension of a Banjo Player
Cynthia has appeared as a guest and performer on CBS, FOX, and ABC network television shows, including Good Morning America and The Morning Show, as well as on NPR’s Piano Jazz, Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour, BBC Radio, and elsewhere. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, DownBeat, Fretboard Journal, International Musician, People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and countless other local, trade, and foreign media outlets.
Sayer first rose to international prominence as a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, all the while exploring her wider musical interests and playing with such legendary jazz, popular, and roots music artists as Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Andy Statman, Les Paul, Marvin Hamlisch, Wynton Marsalis, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, Charlie Giordano (with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), and John McEuen (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Vince Giordano, Scott Robinson, Wycliffe Gordon, and many others.
The Unexpected Diversity of Her Banjo
A multi-instrumentalist heard on distinguished feature film and TV soundtracks and comfortable in many genres, Cynthia’s fun, family-friendly programs present the unexpected musical diversity of the banjo in the hands of a master. She tours extensively with her bands and as a guest artist across four continents, including her second highly successful tour in China in 2018. At home, she performs at prestigious venues like New York City’s Lincoln Center, Birdland (see 2018 review here), and Joe’s Pub at The Public, and is producer of the annual “Hot Strings Festival” at City Winery NY.
Her feature CDs, nine in all, have received rave reviews and multiple “Best of” nominations and awards in various categories, including two Jazz Journalists Association best pick lists. Sayer has played for two U.S. presidents (once at The White House), performed with several symphony orchestras including The New York Philharmonic, was the official banjoist for The New York Yankees, and is proud to be the subject of a Trivial Pursuit question.
Learn from Cynthia
Sayer is also an avid educator, presenting clinics, programs, and lecture/demonstrations at schools, colleges, and cultural organizations, including a series of educational concerts in 2019-2020 for Jazz At Lincoln Center. She was filmed for a national educational project co-sponsored by The Smithsonian Institution and has contributed articles to several American and British trade publications. Her play-along program, You’re IN The Band, is popular with players of all instruments learning and practicing traditional/hot jazz and swing.
Keeping up with Cynthia Sayer
- Winner of the 2019 Bistro Award* & 2018 Global Music Awards*
- Cover of International Musician magazine (forthcoming)*
- Featured artist at The Newport Jazz Festival* (2018)
- Special Guest for the Django Reinhardt Festival at Birdland, NYC (2019)
- Concerts and educational programs at Lincoln Center, NYC (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020)
- Headliner at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (2017)
- Touring in China, Europe, and the United States with her bands and as a featured guest (2018, 2019, 2020)
- Working with Woody Allen and his band (2018)
*First 4-string banjoist ever to win/appear!
Making Music’s Interview with Cynthia Sayer
Chuck Schiele: You have a flourishing career. You are acknowledged to be pioneering. And it looks like you’re having a blast doing it. What is your perspective and/or philosophy on the success of all this?
Cynthia Sayer: I consider my basic job as a musician to be all about connecting people to a joyful, engaging experience. That’s why I named my band Joyride! When you think about it, giving uplift to others is pretty heady stuff. And experiencing first-hand the power of music to bring people together is amazing, no matter where in the world, whether or not they’ve even seen a banjo before, past cultural differences, and absent of politics. It certainly nourishes my sense of reward and purpose.
When I first came to NYC, there were players of all levels out there gigging in a different kind of freelance world than exists today. Now, I’m continually knocked out by the high caliber of talent and skill in practically every young musician I meet. Not only is the cost of living high here, but so is the musical bar. Some people get lucky, but for most of us it requires deep commitment and lots of determination to make a life in the music industry. Figure out how to connect to the musical community in which you want to work, and create a place for yourself. Then, grow from there!
Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?
Cynthia Sayer: I think of myself as a hard-working professional who enjoys the enormously good fortune of working with excellent players, traveling to interesting places, and doing something I love. I also believe in always striving to learn and grow — that never stops. I imagine most musicians feel the same.
Most people appreciate that musicians need to practice and have some creative time for their work. As a bandleader, there’s also a whole other facet that I found people often don’t realize — office work! Even with both a manager and an agent, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes time and energy involved to keep a music career going.
Creative projects are also an important part of my work. At the moment I’m scoring for a music video project with my Joyride Band. I’m fortunate to feel deeply supported at home, yet like in many other jobs, it can be tricky to balance it all. Part of my lifestyle requires a lifelong commitment to maintaining as reasonable life balance as best I can. There’s always a lot on my plate, sometimes probably too much, but it’s so well worth it!
I also want to mention that until around the early 2000s, I could count on one hand the number of women instrumentalists working in my genre. Gone are the days when I would inevitably be asked, “Which musician is your husband?” Or after a wailing set on banjo, someone pointing to me and saying, “Look, there’s the singer!” And then there’s every female instrumentalist’s favorite, “You play great for a girl!” Thankfully, times have changed dramatically. Of course there’s still a long way to go, but my heart soars to see so many outstanding young women players in today’s scene!
Chuck Schiele: You take jazz to new places with banjo; and banjo to new places with jazz. What are the inspirations that have gotten you to here. What does inspiration indicate in your future?
Cynthia Sayer: I have two primary inspirations. First was my banjo teacher Patty Fischer. I had never met a grownup woman in the arts before I started taking lessons with her, and she became an important role model. Second is the historic jazz banjoist Elmer Snowden. When I heard his album, Harlem Banjo on Riverside Records, it was an epiphany: his playing crystalized for me that the instrument’s powerful rhythmic drive and dynamic articulation are ideal for jazz. Other historic inspirations include Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong. Contemporary artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Andy Statman, Rhiannon Giddens, and many others, offer me endless inspiration.
For me, inspiration is all about embracing what attracts me and going wherever that leads. I titled one of my albums Attractions for that reason – the music reflects what I was drawn to at that time. In fact, that’s been my regular agenda with each of my albums. I intend to stay open, embrace, and integrate whatever attracts and inspires along the way.
Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist?
Cynthia Sayer: Though I prioritize working with a select group of players, every now and then I’ll hear someone whose playing hits me like a musical version of love-at-first-sight. It doesn’t happen often, but so far it’s never steered me wrong. For example, when accordionist/keyboardist Charlie Giordano came to sit in on one of my gigs, I was so thrilled by his playing and our easy musical fit, I immediately knew that I wanted to record with him. Swinging banjo and accordion offered the perfect theme around which to build my next album, titled Joyride. And many wonderful gigs followed and continue on (that is, when Charlie isn’t busy touring with Bruce Springsteen!).
Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your ax, and the gear associated with it.
Cynthia Sayer: I play an Ome Juggernaut Standard Jazz banjo, made from curly maple. I go for a round, full-bodied sound, not bright nor plunky, with a big dynamic range, and this is a perfect fit for me. I also really like the striking yet understated look of its black engraved chrome metal finish. [see article about Ome IKON Banjo]
My instrument appears to be an open back but actually it’s not. I have a plexiglass resonator, sitting on four little plexiglass feet that are screwed to the rim. There are close-up photos of it on my website’s FAQ page. I removed the flanges and resonator in order to make the banjo as lightweight as possible, and also a smaller, more comfortable fit for my size. I experimented carefully with the sound ramifications beforehand, but found that on this instrument, it works.
I use GHS strings, ball-ends not loop ends, because I find them faster to change if I break one while performing. My gauges are: .012, .015, .020w, .028w. I’m into Vintage Bronze for the wound strings. They’re less durable but I like their warm sound. I prefer to order bunches of strings by the gauges, not by the pack, since I don’t use them up evenly.
For picks, I use BlueChip, the TD 40 with a “speed bevel.” I think they are fabulous.
The Realist Banjo Pickup is the best I’ve ever used. It’s ability to boost my natural acoustic sound while enabling me to maintain my full dynamic range when playing, makes it a total winner for me.
Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?
Cynthia Sayer: Good question! A simple thing like being rested is super important. Since my jobs onstage include calling arrangements as we go (i.e., who does what & when), making sure the concert flow feels right and staying open to make changes as we go, talking to the audience between tunes and creating a relationship with them, and of course maintaining a solid musical connection to the band and trying to play and sing at my best, it’s more difficult to stay relaxed yet focused to do all of this if I’m too tired!
It also matters to me to stay fit since banjos are heavy, and I don’t weigh a lot! Luckily I enjoy being physically active – working out, hiking, swimming, etc., and also care about eating healthy. I’m kind of a pain in the neck about what I eat on the road – sometimes the guys roll their eyes at me – but I’m sure it makes a difference! Speaking of which, as much as I love Ome, if anyone reading invents a plectrum banjo that is truly high-end but weighs 6 pounds or less – non-acoustic is fine – please let me know! 🙂
Chuck Schiele: What is the Number One thing on your mind as you take the stage?
Cynthia Sayer: I try to remind myself to relax and enjoy. As a bandleader, since I am busy with directing and performing as well as playing, it’s important that I don’t miss being present and connected to my own musical experience.
Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the banjo and music in general?
Cynthia Sayer: As someone who also teaches and gives workshops, I’d say go for it! Playing music can bring true enjoyment and pleasure throughout your life! Whether for occasional fun on your own or to play with friends, or for professional aspirations, learning an instrument is genuinely fun, and also challenging – be ready for both.
If their interest is for banjo, I would ask them what kind of music they like, and offer different music links as a reference to help them decide whether 4-string or 5-string banjo is the best fit. Then, if they want to play 4-string, I’d explain the differences between tenor and plectrum, and again show some music links for comparison. Last of all, I would encourage them to study with someone they enjoy working with. I believe that can make a big difference.
For players with some music background, I recommend my You’re IN The Band play-along, so you can have a band to play with in the privacy (also these days, safety!) of your home. There’s a free sample download on my website I use YITB as a teaching tool, but it can also be used for self-learning and fun!
Chuck Schiele: You play other instruments as well…
Cynthia Sayer: Along with banjo, I play tenor guitar, which I use now and then for gigs and recordings. I also play piano, and was the pianist/vocalist with Woody Allen’s jazz band for 10+ years. I’ve played uke on film soundtracks and occasionally in concert. I also play some mallets, and have used them in several shows requiring multi-instrumental skills (including a hit run of the New Spike Jones Orchestra … I became a wiz on tuned cowbells, ha!) I’ve continued to use mallets on occasional recordings. I used to also play drums, and am glad to have the souvenir of being the drummer on one track of Tony Trischka’s World Turning album.
By the way, the reason I play banjo is that when I was 13 years old, I wanted a drum set, and my parents refused, feeling it would be too much for our already active, loud family. To distract me, they got me a banjo instead. When I came home from school and saw it on my bed, I knew immediately it was a bribe. I remember accepting that I’d never get my drum set, and thinking ok, I might as well try playing this thing instead. Thanks, Mom & Dad! Little did they know what they started…
Cynthia Sayer Video
What “they” say about Cynthia Sayer
“Cynthia Sayer is a rarity; a woman who plays banjo with drive and virtuosity.”
— THE NEW YORK TIMES
“Some of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest 2017’s best moments … Cynthia Sayer and her Joyride Quartet was a fresh breeze. Power banjo, very cool.”
— OFFBEAT MAGAZINE (New Orleans)
“Cynthia Sayer almost made the applause meter explode … Her swingy playing catches you from the start, and her sense of showmanship is present at every second.”
— LA DÉPECHE (France)
“A dazzling evening, a capacity crowd … Nobody wanted it to end.”
— GUARDIAN NEWS (England)
“The highest point of the festival was the New Yorker Cynthia Sayer.”
— GOETTINGER TAGESBLATT (Germany)
“She’s pushing the four-string banjo into new, uncharted territory.”
— FRETBOARD JOURNAL
“The American banjoist Cynthia Sayer was one of the great attractions of the festival.”
— DE STEM (Holland)
Discover More about Cynthia Sayer
“You’re IN The Band”
Play-along program for all jazz instruments (book + downloads or CDs)
- ATTRACTIONS featuring Bucky Pizzarelli
- CYNTHIA (Vol 1 & 2) “The Reissue Recordings” [Remastered], featuring Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Wellstood, Milt Hinton
- THE JAZZ BANJO OF CYNTHIA SAYER – LP
For these albums, and for all physical CDs, please contact the BG Dilworth Agency:
- STRING SWING
- FORWARD MOVES, featuring Kenny Davern & Vince Giordano
Cynthia Sayer Music is also on Spotify and most other major streaming outlets.
Cynthia Sayer is associated with the following organizations.