She’s All That Jazz: Alumna Strums Her Way to Success on the Banjo

By Nancy J. McCann, March 2, 2017

Alumna Strums Her Way to Success on the Banjo

Who was the official banjo player for the New York Yankees? If you answered Cynthia Sayer ’77, then Trivial Pursuit is the game for you. As out-of-left-field as having her name appear on a legitimate game card is, “being hired by George Steinbrenner is even better,” quips the hall of fame banjoist. “Playing in the Yankees promotional band — it was just one of the gigs I did when I started out as a freelance musician,” says the nonplused Sayer.

With her skills as a musician burgeoning since those early days, Sayer went on to become a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band. She’s played or recorded with the likes of legendary musicians Les Paul, Wynton Marsalis and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. She’s performed for royalty, world dignitaries and presidents, appeared on four continents, and in such esteemed venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and The White House. She leads two bands: her regular jazz band Joyride, and Women of the World — an all-woman jazz band based in Europe. She’s considered one of the top four-string jazz banjoists in the world and is an inductee into the American Banjo Hall of Fame.

Sayer began playing banjo at 13-years-old — the result of a parental bribe. A Renaissance woman from an early age, she danced, sang, painted, acted in Community Theater and played several instruments including piano. Her next conquest: the drums. Not willing to succumb to a houseful of noise, her parents bribed her with banjo lessons instead.

Even as she developed into an accomplished banjoist, Sayer didn’t pursue music school. At Ithaca, she majored in English.

“I was planning to be a lawyer, not a musician. I wanted a rounded education. I love literature, writing, and philosophy,” says Sayer. “It was the way to develop myself intellectually — thinking critically and creatively. Ithaca was beautiful and with the strength of all the arts — it was a good fit for me. I earned my spending money by playing gigs at the Rongovian Embassy while I was there.”

After graduation, Sayer headed to the Big Apple in search of adventure before starting law school. “I loved coming to New York. I was 21 and gigging regionally as a freelance musician. I also had a group called the Out to Lunch Jazz Band and we played on the street,” she fondly reminisces. “It was a wonderful way to learn whether this was the life for me. And then things grew from there.” Able to earn a living while indulging her love for music, travel, and adventure, law school was not to be.

Sayer developed her enviable banjo skills the old-fashioned way: apprenticeship style.

“I learned from playing gigs and letting the other musicians know I wanted direction so I could improve,” says Sayer. “And then I would practice, practice, practice at home. I had enough instinct to find my way through the maze and grow just by doing it.”

“That’s how everybody used to learn,” she adds. “Now, most of the young musicians on the scene have been to music school. But I learned by doing.”

That way of study is exactly what she proffers to aspiring musicians through her new play-along program, “You’re IN the Band.”

“It gives musicians — whether students, hobbyists or professionals — the actual experience of playing in a band. It allows them to develop skills they need for gigs and to have fun in the process,” says Sayer. “I loved creating this project because teaching has become an important part of my life. It’s a wonderful way to give back.”