• An Interview with Cynthia Sayer

    Cynthia Sayer
    Photo credit: Gary Spector

    About the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and the Frank Jaklitsch Trio.

    Some are born with banjos, Shakespeare once said; others have banjos thrust upon them. Plectrum master Cynthia Sayer falls into the latter category, recalling that her parents (having seen an ad for a local four-string teacher) bribed her with a banjo in place of the drums she yearned for. But teenage lessons with Scotch Plains, New Jersey pro Patty Fisher put Sayer on an impressive award-winning career path that includes work in film; stints with symphony orchestras; and extensive international touring. A talented multi-instrumentalist, she eventually played drums on Tony Trischka's groundbreaking World Turning album, too.

    Sayer, hailed by the New York Times for her "drive and virtuosity," was a founding member of Woody Allen's New Orleans Jazz Band, bouncing between piano and banjo for over a decade. A short list of other collaborators includes guitarists Les Paul and Bucky Pizzarelli; composer Marvin Hamlisch; pianists Dick Hyman and Marian McPartland; trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; and mandolinist Andy Statman. She's performed at the White House; strummed banjo for the Yankees; and is a member of the American Banjo Museum's Hall of Fame.

    While comfortable with a number of genres, Sayer identifies specifically as a jazzer and has a keen sense of her instrument's place in the music's history, from its earliest roots to now, which informs her teaching style as well as her playing.

    Her most recent album, 2013's Joyride, is a dazzling effort, marked by interplay with accordionist Charlie Giordano and Sayer's own confident singing. This month she releases a new educational tool, Cynthia Sayer's Authentic Classic Jazz Play-Along: You're IN The Band, which is aimed at giving students the feel of working in an actual group.

    Cynthia Sayer - Joyride

    Tell us a little about the history of the four-string banjo.

    The tenor came into being with the evolution of jazz. The plectrum, which takes it name from the fact that it's strummed, is really a closer relation to the five-string, because the tuning is very similar, minus the fifth drone string. The plectrum evolved to be a soloist's instrument, played in a chord melody style, whereas, traditionally, the tenor was both a rhythm instrument and single string instrument. The plectrum became more commonly used theatrically, on the vaudeville stage and so on. Of course, the most famous plectrum banjo player was Eddie Peabody, and he exemplifies the whole plectrum thing in terms of it being used as a soloist's instrument, with chord melody, tremolo and so forth. But, I don't relate to the banjo at all in the Eddie Peabody style, I relate to it as a jazz instrument.

    What attracts you to the plectrum?

    The tenor is pitched in fifths like a viola, CGDA. The plectrum starts out with the same two bottom strings, but then goes into a much tighter tuning, CGBD. It's like a G triad with a C on the bottom. That top string on my plectrum is a D below the tenor's A. That gives me a lot more opportunity to keep the melody line on top and have chords underneath it. A tenor player wanting to play the melody with chords will, by necessity, need to go into the second or third string to play the line, just by virtue of the way its tuned. My personal take is that the plectrum's tighter chord cluster sounds more modern. It lends itself more to how I think and hear. It's a wonderful jazz instrument.

    Hot Springs Fest, New York City. Photo credit: Andrew Sciaulino

    Patty Fisher played an important role in your life, yes?

    I had no reference point and no reason to understand how incredibly rare it was that I was meeting a woman four-string banjo player. She was a working musician and also a fine artist, coincidentally. She introduced me to four-string banjo, to early jazz and also to that corny My Father's Mustache/Shakey's Pizza kind of sing along stuff, which was very popular at that time—the basic repertoire. Basically, I was so enamored because I had never met a grownup in the arts before, much less someone doing it for a living. She blew me away. She was more important to me than the banjo itself.

    Was there a key influence for you besides Fisher?

    (Fellow four-stringer) Eddy Davis played a recording for me by Elmer Snowden, called Harlem Blues. Snowden played tenor and he actually pitched it down a fifth, with a G on the low string, like a low mandolin tuning. It didn't matter because it was a banjo sound, a banjo style and a banjo approach. When I heard that record that did it for me. I'd never heard banjo as a serious, driving jazz instrument, and there it was. Not one ounce of cornball stuff—it was pure music, powerful, swinging and I just went crazy over it. That's really what started me to be a jazz banjo player. I hadn't appreciated the power of the banjo as a jazz instrument until I heard that record. Snowden, from that moment, instantly became my hero and he is to this day.

    What's the health report on jazz banjo today?

    The banjo is in the midst of an enormous renaissance. It is seriously cool to be a banjo player right now. Needless to say, I'm happy about that. I remember when I was in my 20s and I would go to parties and people would say to me, 'oh, what do you do,' and I would say, 'I play the banjo,' and they would look at me and literally not know how to respond. It was just not part of the consciousness of my generation. Now, of course, if I say I play the banjo, everyone is like, 'wow, that's so cool.'

    Photo credit: Andrew Sciaulino

    You played piano with Woody Allen as frequently as banjo?

    Woody really likes that George Lewis/Bunk Johnson school of jazz. At the Michael's Pub gig, Eddy was Woody's music director and they were trying to find people who connected to that style, as opposed to the Eddie Condon/New York sound that many local musicians played. They invited me to be the piano player and I turned it down at first. I felt there were great piano players all over New York, why would they ask me? It just didn't make sense. I thought, if you want to ask me to play banjo, fine, but Eddy was already in that chair. But, when I finally sat down to play piano with Woody, I realized I was a good fit for the band. I had a lot to learn, but I grasped the sort of primal simplicity of the style. The New York players had chops up the wazoo, but I deeply understood what was going on musically, which was an important part of it. When Eddy couldn't make it, I would switch over to banjo and they would hire a sub pianist, so I played banjo a lot, too.

    Earlier Cynthia Sayer Recordings

    L-R: L-R: String Swing (2000), Cynthia (remastered reissue 2016) with Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Wellstood & Milt Hinton, and Forward Moves (1992), featuring Kenny Davern & Vince Giordano.

    Early Cynthia Sayer recordings

    You mentioned you don't relate to the classic Peabody plectrum style.

    I don't care for busy, flashy showboat-y playing when that's the center of what is being offered. It's not that I'm against having great chops, because I think it's a wonderful asset to have excellent tools for what you do. But my primary concerns are about playing with soul, swinging, making a statement and playing with integrity. Banjo has this kind of honest, expressive edge to it and I love that and try to make good use of it. I still hear lots of razzle-dazzle stuff, which I think is wonderful in a certain context, but that's not what I'm after when I'm playing jazz.

    Was tremolo tricky for you?

    Tremolo is a characteristic sound of the banjo and people are often intimidated by trying to do it. What I want to say right up front is that if I can tremolo, anybody can. I'm left-handed and I play right-handed and it took me forever to tremolo. There are a few things to think about when learning it, including the fact that it requires a controlled letting go. Control in terms of what you want the tremolo to be—is it one string, three strings, big, light, heavy? The actual tremolo sound is something that requires a muscular kind of letting go. When people use their whole arm, and you can feel the tension, they haven't found the correct muscles for it. It's more from the wrist. What I did was keep pushing, and one day I realized that my tremolo kept growing and I had become good at it. Tremolo is a very powerful, strong thing and anything strong you want to use selectively.

    "Midnight in Moscow," at Joe's Pub

    Feelings on the five-string?

    I didn't care for the five-string banjo for a long time, mostly because I associated it with three-chord, fast bluegrass music and to me there wasn't enough variety and soulfulness in it—which, of course, speaks only to my ignorance. A big turning point was when I was invited, some years ago, to be a guest teacher at Banjo Camp North, in Massachusetts. It was an extraordinary weekend for me, just for watching and learning the different clawhammer and three finger styles. I was able to hear first hand, close up a lot of magnificent playing and I walked away from that with a whole new level of respect.

    You play plectrum—what do you look for in one? Your BlueChip TD40 seems a bit thick for banjo.

    I want clarity. I want a certain stiffness. I don't consider my pick to be that thick. What I don't care for is a pick that's very flexible, because it gets a little slappy sounding. This is what sounds and feels right. I have to say I feel like the BlueChip makes me a better player. I'm also an aggressive player. I wear through picks and these suckers are strong.

    Cynthia Sayer On NPR's Piano Jazz

    Cynthia's appearance as feature guest on National Public Radio's Piano Jazz, from 2013, with host Jon Weber.

    You use a flat plexiglass resonator. Why?

    The resonator that I use is an idea that I borrowed from Eddy Davis. There are four little feet that create an airspace, so it's not flush against the rim. I went back and forth a lot about the tone and the quality of the sound before I had the banjo drilled. I thought about what I might be compromising, and I think it really depends enormously on the model of banjo you have. Sometimes this is a really good way to ruin the sound of your instrument. It works on these Omes. It sounds great. I also weigh less than 110 pounds and my banjo is really heavy and I perform standing up. I was lugging this thing around, and even getting rid of half a pound was a help to me. I love the size, too, having gotten rid of the flanges and the full resonator.

    "Bogalousa Strut" by Cynthia Sayer's Women Of The World Jazz Band

    The clear banjo head looks great on your instrument.

    I had one sitting in my closet for probably 25 years and I finally changed it, recently. I looked at the box and there was no indication of what brand it was, so I can't tell you the make! Different kinds of heads have different general tonal qualities, in terms of whether it's clear or white or frosted. I really wanted a clear head, and I think that's the only cosmetic compromise I've ever made. A white head is probably more suited to the mentality of the sound I want, but I wanted clear, so that's what I put on. Clear can be a little brighter and white a little fuller, but I feel like I've done a very good job balancing out the sound in other ways.

    You're about to release Cynthia Sayer's Authentic Classic Jazz Play-Along: You're IN The Band. Tell us about your new educational project.

    My students had expressed a good deal of frustration over the years with trying to find the right kind of play-along materials. They asked me to make something, but I was always busy with gigs and other work. Finally, the timing was right. Once I conceived of this project it organically grew to be more involved than I initially thought it would be. I'm really proud of it, though, and really happy with it. It's designed to give you a genuine experience of what it's like to play in a hot jazz/trad style group. It's a quartet and we leave space for you to play; you can also download tracks minus the banjo or the trumpet. Each tune is played at two different speeds, practice or gig tempo, and it's great to use with multiple instruments playing along with the quartet.

    Cynthia Sayer
    Photo credit: Gary Spector


    Sayer's main axe is an Ome Juggernaut Standard Jazz model with a maple pot and engraved black hardware. It features a custom armrest made by Norbert Pietsch. She also has a mahogany/nickel model, with added gold hooks and armrest. Both are outfitted with Realist pickups from David Gage. She endorses Ome and Gage, as well as GHS Strings and BlueChip Picks. Other instruments in her collection, in addition to piano, include tenor banjos, tenor guitars (tuned plectrum), ukuleles and various percussion instruments.

    Additional Information

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Ryk's Avatar
      Ryk -

      I have long appreciated Cynthia's music and now can see why ... her thoughts on the plectrum are the same as mine. It's a fine instrument period without all the pizzazz of the Peabody style. (Still to be appreciated though.) It brings a voice to music that just seems to generate more smiles from listeners.

      Please come back to Banjo Camp North !!!