Once the favorite of traditional New Orleans Jazz, players of ragtime, minstrel shows, and music halls, the banjo's popularity had receded, at least as a jazz instrument. In recent years, while not coming all the way back, it has gotten a significant push by the likes of Bela Fleck, along with Cynthia Sayer who has successfully combined her plucking with her singing. While Sayer is adept with both the tenor guitar and piano, she focuses her attention on the banjo as well as her vocalizing.
Sayer began playing professionally when she was 17 when she played in an all-female jazz band at the home of the N.Y. Mets, Shea Stadium. Since then, she has appeared with many notable groups including the New York Philharmonic in 1993 where she participated in a performance of "Rhapsody in Blue." In 1989, she was at the Metropolitan Opera House playing for a dance piece choreographed by Twyla Tharpe. One of her major gigs was with the Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band which she joined in 1995. Sayer credits eminent banjoist and band leader Elmer Snowden with helping her decide to make music her profession by opening her eyes to jazz, the possibilities of the banjo, and to the importance of musical integrity.
Sayer's playing is far more expansive than the original performers on this instrument. Her playing continues the legacy of traditional jazz, but she also has taken the banjo beyond the New Orleans style to traditional pop and modern jazz. She is a successful writer, has appeared on the soundtracks of movies and TV shows, and appeared at several jazz festivals in the U.S. and Europe. Like the play lists she selects for her albums, her listening tastes are eclectic taking in rock, jazz, and classical music. Among those she listens to are Django Reinhardt, jazz violinist Regina Carter, Tom Waits, and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jellyroll Morton. She was the choice of Frets Magazine readers who made her as the winner of the 1988 Readers Poll Awards for 4-String Banjo All Styles. The Mississippi Rag 1999 Readers Poll Award listed Sayer as second for Favorite Living Banjo Player. Not at all lonely being one of the few jazz banjo players extant, Sayer continues to record and is working on a documentary film on the banjo. ~ Dave Nathan