Cynthia Sayer could have been a drummer.
The first time she heard the thrashing rhythm of a snare drum in her Scotch Plains, N.J., middle-school band, she came home from school begging her parents for a drum set.
They balked. The drums, they said, were too loud. Couldn’t she play something sweet and quiet?
Sayer was crushed. Sweet and quiet wasn’t her thing. So, she took percussion lessons at school and continued to plead for drums at home, despite her parent’s reservations.
Until one day a banjo appeared on her bed.
“I knew it was a bribe to get me to stop pursuing the drums,” Sayer says. “They did me such a huge favor.”
They did the contemporary jazz world a favor, too.
Sayer is now one of hottest four-string jazz banjoists in the world and one of only a handful of females playing the instrument professionally.
A member of Woody Allen’s New York City jazz band for more than 10 years, Sayer has performed with Wynton Marsalis, Les Paul, Bill Cosby and Bucky Pizzarelli, to name a few.
She’s performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, appeared with The New York Philharmonic and lent her raw, energetic stringing to a variety of soundtracks, including “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Sophie’s Choice.”
Lucky for local jazz-lovers, Sayer’s parents, Bert and Barbara Sayer, are longtime Sarasota residents, which means the New York City-based musician often pops up in town with her engraved black chrome banjo.
“I tend to use gigging in Sarasota as an excuse to extend my visit,” Sayer says. “I love the audience. There’s an added element of first-hand nostalgia and a connection to the music. Not only are people listening and enjoying what I do, but they also know a lot of the material.”
Sayer, who performed last month with local jazz luminary Dick Hyman at the Sarasota Jazz Festival, will return to Sarasota this month for another concert at The Players Theatre, this time with local trumpet player Bob Switzer and string bassist Mark Neuenschwander.
The group’s name, Sparks Fly, should serve as an indication of what audiences can expect from Sayer, who is also a skilled vocalist and piano player.
Though much of her playing is rooted in early jazz, the musician says she’s not afraid to step outside the bounds of traditional repertoire, especially when it comes to shedding the banjo’s folksy image.
“Back in the 1800s, there was a time when nice young ladies learned to play the banjo as a parlor instrument,” Sayer says. “And then it kind of went out of style, until flappers starting playing it again in the 1920s.”
So, then, how does she think the banjo is regarded now — almost 40 years since “Deliverance” stigmatized the instrument with the “Dueling Banjos” jam?
“When I was in my 20s, it definitely wasn’t cool to play the banjo,” Sayer says. “But now I think it’s cool again. I waited a long time for this comeback.”
Sayer on jamming with the stars
“He can really wail from his soul on that clarinet, but he’s very guarded in front of audiences. On the road, he sticks to his family. He’s reclusive, as most people know.”
“I was watching a TV show the other day, and when the credits rolled I saw the music was by Dick Hyman. I consider him to be a living legend.”
“I worked with him on the soundtrack for his TV show, ‘The Cosby Mysteries.’ To my surprise, when I showed up to the recording session, he was directing it himself. He was an absolute pro. He knew the music forwards, backwards and upside down.”
“Sometimes you meet these musicians who’ve been at it for a long time and they’re burned out. Not Bucky. He’s constantly joyous.”
IF YOU GO
Cynthia Sayer & Sparks Fly will perform at 8 p.m. Monday, March 14, at The Players Theatre. For tickets, call 365-2494 or visit www.theplayers.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]