Banjoist Cynthia Sayer Plays it Cool

Scotch Plains-born Cynthia Sayer is one of the world’s most accomplished jazz banjoists.

Jersey-bred banjoist Cynthia Sayer will perform an eclectic mix of tango, Western swing and more on September 30 at the Grunin Center in Toms River.
Jersey-bred banjoist Cynthia Sayer will perform an eclectic mix of tango, Western swing and more on September 30 at the Grunin Center in Toms River.
Photo Courtesy of Gary Spector

Growing up in Scotch Plains in the 1960s and ’70s, Cynthia Sayer wanted to play the drums. Her parents bought her a banjo instead. “Because I associated the banjo with shows like Hee-Haw, I thought, Oh no, bluegrass? But my parents found a remarkable woman banjo teacher who helped me to discover that the banjo was also a jazz instrument. I was hooked.”

Today, Sayer is one of the world’s most accomplished jazz banjoists, having played with the likes of Bucky Pizzarelli, Les Paul, Dick Hyman and Wynton Marsalis. She will appear September 30 with her group, Cynthia Sayer and Her Joyride Quartet, at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River.

Sayer was still in high school when she started landing paying gigs. After graduating Ithaca College, rather than go to law school as she had originally planned, she committed to her music career. Before long, she was enlisted as a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, performing on piano and sometimes banjo. In addition to playing the celebrated Monday night Michael’s Pub gigs with Allen, she appears in the 1997 documentary about Allen’s 18-city European tour, Wild Man Blues, and is heard on the soundtracks of four of Allen’s films.

Sayer keeps a happy balance between her life and work. She and her partner, who has two boys from a previous marriage, have been together for 10 years. And after her parents relocated to Sarasota, she has made the west coast of Florida a regular stop on any U.S. tour.

For her Grunin Center appearance, Sayer will perform an eclectic mix showcasing the range of the banjo, including American songbook, tango, Western swing and, even classical works. “I do what people expect of the banjo, but I also do what people don’t expect, like tango music and Irish music, but all with a jazz inflection,” she says. “When you say the word banjo most people assume bluegrass or guys in striped vests playing Dixieland. My goal is to enlighten them about the cool side of the banjo.”

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