Cynthia Sayer ’77 has a most unusual profession—jazz banjoist
by Elizabeth Bauchner
Ask Cynthia Sayer what has been the greatest source of pride in her musical career, and she won’t mention playing for two presidents, her long membership in the Woody Allen Jazz Band, her collaboration with several well-known jazz musicians, or her many CDs. “The biggest thing I get a kick out of,” she says, “is that there is a Trivial Pursuit question about me.”
Cynthia has made a career out of doing something she loves, a job that few people share: playing banjo—and jazz banjo at that. Unlike the five-string banjo, which is usually associated with bluegrass, the four-string banjo that Cynthia plays is the one used in jazz. “The banjo has a very narrow, stereotyped image,” Cynthia points out. “The great jazz players of the past have been mostly forgotten. I have a tremendous amount of respect for jazz banjoists, and in that sense I hope I’ve contributed to giving the instrument a positive image.”
Her instrument is uncommon in the jazz business, as are members of her sex. (A compendium of 135 individual jazz banjo players at jazz bango.com lists Cynthia as one of only six women.) “I found it hard to be a beginner in this business,” Cynthia says. “But after I became a professional, [being female] was less of an issue. There are unfair problems, but there are also unfair advantages. As you might guess, it can be a promotional advantage to stand out. For example, I have been on numerous tours where…my photo was most frequently chosen to be included in promotional articles in various newspapers.”
Cynthia’s life in music began with piano lessons at age six, and by middle school she wanted to be a jazz drummer. “My parents said, No way!” she remembers. “I was one of four kids who all played instruments, and they felt the drums were just too loud.” One day she came home from school to find a banjo on her bed. So she decided, what the heck, she’d learn to play. Her first and only banjo teacher, Patty Fischer, taught her many jazz standards.
At IC, Cynthia earned extra money playing banjo freelance at places like the Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg. She majored in English and drama and planned to attend law school. But when it came to taking the LSAT, she “just couldn’t do it.” At the time she was playing in a duo with Don Rickenbach, a pianist and vocalist. They applied and were accepted to do a USO tour. Busy traveling in Germany and Iceland, she never got around to taking the LSAT; music became her profession.
In addition to her work as a pianist and vocalist with Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, Cynthia has performed on banjo with the New York Philharmonic; with notable bluegrass musicians such as Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, Tony Trishka, and Eric Weissberg; and with renowned jazz instrumentalist Bucky Pizzarelli, who’s featured on her latest, and eighth, recording, Attractions (see “Turn & Spin”). Her other titles include Souvenirs and The Jazz Banjo of Cynthia Sayer, volumes I and II. She has also worked on several film soundtracks.
Cynthia is looking forward to upcoming tours and festivals, including a stint in London to play at the Dorchester Hotel, where she has performed several times. When she’s not on the road, she’s managing the business end of her career: dealing with managers, creating new work, marketing herself, or booking shows. Cynthia lives in New York City with her longtime partner, Seymour Pond, who owns a gourmet food import business and is a photographer. “He’s also a great cook,” Cynthia notes with pleasure. She feels fortunate that she can maintain a travel schedule that suits both of them.
“I also aspire to accomplish a large project that I prefer to keep mum about for now,” she smiles, “just in case it helps to capture good karma.” Fans who want to learn about that big project will have to follow news on one of her websites.