“Who was the official banjoist for the New York Yankees?” “What member of the National 4-String Banjo Hall of Fame was the piano player in Woody Allen’s New Orleans Band?” Such questions can be found in the 1990’s edition of Trivial Pursuit and may stump the greatest of trivia buffs. Players with a keen understanding of jazz banjo, though—yes, that’s right: jazz banjo—will know immediately of Cynthia Sayer.
The 38th annual North Carolina Jazz Festival will welcome banjo player Cynthia Sayer (FYI: the answer to above questions). Sayer always was interested in music as a child and began playing piano at a mere 6 years old. She also dabbled in guitar and viola as she grew older. She didn’t begin playing banjo until she told her parents she wanted to start playing drums.
“One day, I came home from school and I saw a banjo on my bed,” Sayer says. “I took one look at it, and I instantly knew it was a bribe.”
Sayer was one of four children in her household, all of which played different instruments. Her parents did not want the additional “racket” a set of drums would bring; the banjo seemed a quieter option. Sayer decided to give it a pick. Soon after, she began taking lessons with a local female banjo player, Patty Fisher. It was Sayer’s first time meeting a “grown-up” in the arts before—much less, a professional.
“None of us had any idea how completely bizarre it was that one of the very few women banjo players anywhere had moved to my town [of Scotch Plains, New Jersey],” she observes. “I didn’t know it was weird for women to play.”
Though Sayer somewhat liked playing the four-string (jazz banjo is four strings, not five, like the traditional folk and bluegrass banjo), she was more apt to taking to the keys. However, she loved her teacher.
“I really liked hanging out with her,” she says, “and she introduced me to jazz. And little by little, I fell in love with jazz.”
Fisher compelled Sayer to find thrive in her passion. By the age of 13, Sayer was calling up local nursing homes to ask if she could perform for them. By 17 she began booking professional gigs at venues like the Stagehouse Inn of Scotch Plains.
Despite her talent, it wasn’t easy for Sayer on the professional scene, to enter a male-dominated genre. Bookers were hesitant to schedule her for performances, and she was reluctant to join get-togethers of her male colleagues since she “didn’t know how to be one of the guys.” She remembers how often they would swear and she felt like she needed to do so to fit in. She described it as a “mutual barrier.”
“I don’t think I understood, except in hindsight, how difficult it was, because it was the only reality I knew,” Sayer tells. It was not the sole difficulty she faced, however. She also didn’t interact with other women in her field, mainly because there were none. She began touring at age 18 in 1980.
“I was touring for a good 15 years before I even met another woman,” Sayer remembers. She toured four different continents as an instrumentalist. Since then, female instrumentalists have begun to slowly gain recognition. Sayer calls it a whole new world, in fact. “There are many outstanding, high-caliber artists in traditional jazz on all different instruments.”
One is Debbie Kennedy, a classically trained bassist who played alongside Sayer in Woody Allen’s New Orleans Band. Another is Nicki Parrott, a fellow bassist and vocalist who once performed side-by-side with Paul McCartney and worked with Sayer in the past. Both will play at the North Carolina Jazz Festival this weekend, along with a host of other talented players, most of whom Sayer knows as well.
“Right now [the jazz scene] is pretty welcoming,” she states. “If you know how to play, that’s what counts. I think that was sort of true before. The path to get there was just harder.”
Sayer’s mission now is to educate a new generation in traditional jazz. She regularly provides private lessons and masterclasses in the New York City area but also tutors students from across the globe via Skype. She hopes to encourage her students to embrace the genuine nourishment music provides for the soul.
Sayer will perform for the Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington alongside Kennedy and Ed Polcer, a seasoned cornetist and mentor. The trio also will introduce academy students to traditional jazz as part of the festival’s education program.
“I think it’s just [as] important to show women play jazz also,” Sayer adds. “I think it makes all the difference simply to see the reality, like with me and this woman who taught me banjo, so it’s very meaningful I have the opportunity to do this presentation at GLOW academy.”
Sayer hopes to educate others through her play-along book, “You’re in the Band.” She provides readers real experience playing traditional and older styles of jazz. “Music has given me the most amazing life,” she adds. “It’s about bringing people together and being common ground for us in these divisive times.”
Sayer’s book is available on her website at www.cynthiasayer.com.
38th Annual N.C. Jazz Festival
Feb. 1-3, 7:30 p.m. nightly
Hilton Riverside • 301 N. Water St.
Tickets: $15-$60 individual tickets
« WHERE THE SUN DOTH SHINE: The impending effects the solar panel tariff will have on N.C. JOURNEY IN SONG, DANCE, FILM: Julia Walker Jewell performs original works with Wilmington Symphony Orchestra and others »