Cynthia Sayer, one of the world’s greatest jazz banjoists, will grace the Levitt Pavilion Westport stage on Sunday night. Sayer breaks the mold as a female instrumentalist in a traditionally male-dominated genre by putting the banjo, usually a rhythm section instrument in jazz, front and center in her performances.
Since she was six years old, Sayer has trained on a multitude of instruments, including the piano, viola, guitar and drums. She started playing the banjo after her parents bought her the stringed instrument.
Sayer planned to go to law school after graduating from college, but after realizing she wanted to pursue a career in music, she moved to New York City, where she discovered jazz banjoist Elmer Snowden’s swinging playing style in the 1960 record Harlem Banjo. “I’d never heard banjo as a serious, driving jazz instrument, and there it was,” said Sayer in an interview with Banjo Cafe. It was then that Sayer knew she wanted to be a jazz banjo player.
Sayer has since brought her musical talent and deep understanding of traditional jazz to audiences all over the world. She was featured in the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues, which followed Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, where she performed as a banjoist, pianist and vocalist. You can hear her on the piano in the song “Swing A Lullaby” from the film’s soundtrack.
As a New Orleans jazz enthusiast, Allen admired Sayer’s musicality and featured the multi-instrumentalist’s playing skills in several of his movies, including Bullets Over Broadway (1994), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and more recently Magic In the Moonlight (2014).
In 2006, Sayer was inducted into the American Banjo Museum Hall of Fame as a contemporary four-string banjo performer. Recently, she has been touring internationally with her bands, Sparks Fly Quartet, Women Of The World Jazz Band and Joyride Band, which will make its way to Levitt Pavilion Westport this weekend. Watch Sayer’s innovative take on a traditional instrument at this free show, starting 7PM on Sunday!