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Sayer cover of IM

Cynthia Sayer

She asked for a drum set. She got a banjo. The rest is jazz history.

As a child, Cynthia Sayer got bribed by her parents with a banjo—and ended up finding her musical niche.

Sayer found her first musical love in the piano, which she started playing at age six. She also learned and played viola in elementary and middle school, taught herself to play guitar chords and played orchestral drums. Then one day, still in middle school, Sayer saw a jazz band perform and decided she wanted a drum set. Her parents, however—who raised four children and fostered music appreciation and participation—drew the line at drums in their house.

“I came home from school one day and it was sitting on my bed. I hardly knew what it was: There was no roots music in my world—“Hee Haw” on TV was about my only idea. I knew it was a bribe, but I thought, ‘OK I’ll play it.’” says Sayer, a member of Local 802 (New York City). “So why a banjo? Because they saw an ad from someone offering to teach banjo. It was a female player named Patty Fischer who moved to our town offering lessons.”

This was the beginning of Sayer’s jazz banjo career that is now world-renowned, award-winning, spans every type of performance (live and session; albums, movies, TV; solo, orchestral, and ensemble), and has contributed to posterity through teaching and advocacy. It is a career that has succeeded in the face of gender bias, a general misunderstanding and disrespect for her chosen musical instrument in jazz, and the common musician’s battle to be respected, relevant, and, ultimately, paid to play.

“Patty was the coolest grownup I had ever met—I had never met a woman in the arts before,” Sayer says of her first banjo teacher. “I was totally knocked out by this; she became very important to me.” While today it may sound strange or anachronistic, when Sayer started learning and ultimately playing music professionally, there were not many women in her field— and even fewer in her genre. “I spent 15 years touring internationally before I worked with another female player,” she says. “I would walk into a room with my banjo—and being a woman—and people would be like, ‘What on Earth?’ I was a walking double whammy, which caused a lot of challenges. That’s not the case so much now. It’s been years since I’ve heard, ‘Which guy in the band is your boyfriend/husband?’ or ‘You play great for a girl.’”

Sayer began her music career as so many musicians do—by not intending to be a professional musician. She attended Ithaca College in New York State, where she majored in English and drama and planned to attend law school. When she was not studying, she was freelancing with her banjo to make money. Instead of going to law school, Sayer went on tour with the USO right out of college, playing in Germany and Iceland, and afterward coming back to the States and settling in New York City. She became a successful freelancer pretty quickly because she found a need for banjo players. “I consider myself to have learned apprenticeship style: I learned by doing with some amazing players,” she says. “I remember being so naïve in my 20s, thinking musicians were so nice and helpful. Later I understood they stuck with me because they wanted me to improve,” she laughs, “and they saw that I wanted to learn and I was serious about it.”

While Sayer can and does play every genre of music on her banjo—classical, tango, country, bluegrass, for examples—she is primarily a jazz player. She discovered jazz—and jazz banjo—through Elmer Snowden’s 1960 album, Harlem Banjo! “I was absolutely dumbfounded,” she says. “When I heard that album, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. That was the end of it for me with all other kinds of playing. I wanted to play true, serious, driving jazz.” One of the first things Sayer did after that realization was transcribe all of Snowden’s jazz solos.

When people think of banjos, they typically think of the five-string version that is used primarily for bluegrass music and often played by fingerpicking. Sayer plays a four-string banjo and uses a plectrum. The differences between the two types of banjos is like the difference between a trumpet and trombone, she says. The attack is different, the mechanics of playing are different, even the sound is different. But one way they are the same is that banjos have a long history of being overlooked or misunderstood, Sayer says.

“Banjo is the original fretted instrument of jazz, yet the jazz world has such trouble including it,” she says. “The banjo is an extraordinarily powerful instrument with an earthy, interesting sound. I love its drive and the power behind the drive that it has to offer,” she says. “This combination of honest, earthy roots, kind of the twang part of it, can be applied in so many wonderful ways, but I think people just understandably think of it in the way they know best. So I make the point to play all kinds of music … just to try to show the versatility of it in my programs.”

And Sayer certainly has versatility with her chosen instrument. She first rose to international prominence as a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, in which she played piano and banjo and did vocals. She simultaneously explored her wider musical interests playing with such legendary jazz, popular, and roots music artists (and AFM members) as Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Les Paul, Marvin Hamlisch, and Wynton Marsalis. Her extensive career includes playing banjo, ukulele, and piano on feature film and TV soundtracks—including several Woody Allen films, the classic movie Sophie’s Choice, and the Sesame Street soundtrack— and doing TV commercials and radio jingles. She has busked in the streets, performed for two U.S. presidents (once at the White House), played with orchestras and at the Met for the American Ballet Theatre, and even had a gig with the New York Yankees promotional band, for which she was featured in a Trivial Pursuit question (see sidebar).

Sayer has made nine albums, received numerous awards and accolades, and written a book titled You’re IN the Band. In 2006 she was inducted into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame, which is part of the American Banjo Museum.

Despite this stellar resume, being a female musician has been a major factor throughout her career. While she rarely receives the backhanded compliments or flippant comments about being a girl player that she did decades ago, she still sees that women in the music industry have a long way to go for equality. “I have a feeling of disappointment that I see so few women like me—middle aged, working instrumentalists—out there. But I am so happy and grateful to see young women who are coming up now, and their activism,” Sayer says.

Similarly, she finds the cultural stigma of the banjo is also finally being shed. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the banjo typically was seen as the instrument of low-income classes of people, both black and white, that was used for casual recreation at home or in minstrel shows—not for “serious” musical endeavors. Sayer says players such as Bela Fleck (member of Local 257 in Nashville) and others have helped change the perception of the banjo and undo the musical stereotypes that have followed the instrument for over a century, while movements for Black players to reclaim the banjo and embrace its African roots started in the 1990s. “It’s uncanny how the banjo has a long history of reflecting our society, and even now, in keeping with our powerful #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, it continues to reflect our social evolution in diversity,” Sayer says. “The banjo is now recognized as the core of a whole part of America’s musical heritage that had been swept under the rug. … After all this time, it’s like the banjo—both 4-string and 5-string—is finally truly coming into its own.”

She views this positive forward movement as encouraging, and even sees an opportunity for greater advancement because of the current coronavirus pandemic. “It makes you think about what you appreciate because you’re stuck at home and feeling grateful for what you have. I was thinking this is a good time for musicians to look around and really see the talent that they may be overlooking in women and people of color—or in whatever bubble they happen to be in—whether it’s about culture or gender or sexual preference,” she says. “There’s so much great talent out there, and if you really notice and pay attention, you will appreciate it. … Then you would have to be more inclusive, because I think there is still a bias out there—whether it’s just from habit, conscious or unconscious—but whatever it is, we need more women in the music industry. I’m an example of the fact that you can do it, and I want other women to have the opportunity to do that too.”

Cynthia Sayer Recounts Times the AFM Had Her Back

Cynthia Sayer has been an AFM member for over 40 years. She originally joined as a college student in Ithaca, NY, in the 1970s. She transferred to Local 380 (Binghamton, NY) when the Ithaca local closed, and recently transferred her membership to Local 802.

“The AFM has been overtly helpful to me! I was not properly in the system for some soundtrack work I did early in my career—i.e. in pre-digital times—although I had signed union contracts for each. Two were successful feature films and one was a television series. I was foolishly naïve about royalties then, and thought, ‘Oh well, at least I was paid properly at the time, and enjoyed the experiences.’ I let it go and moved on.

“Years later, older and wiser, after accidentally discovering I was also on the cast album for one of the un-credited films, I was reminded of it all and called the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund to see if anything could still be done. They explained what I needed, and then I called the union for help. The man I worked with there [at Local 802 (New York City)] was fantastic! He doggedly tracked down what was needed, aided by a couple items of proof I was luckily able to dig up for one of the films, and he succeeded in getting me into the system for all of my missing work. Thanks to the AFM, I finally received—and still get—those royalty payments.

“I reached out to this same wonderful man at the union a few years ago, after receiving a questionable letter from a film company for whom I had done some soundtrack work, and for which I had signed union contracts. Reading the legal jargon, it appeared to me that they were asking me to sign away my soundtrack rights! He confirmed that’s exactly what it was, advised me to not sign it, and expressed profound gratitude to have been informed about it so that they could be aware of and fight this kind of underhanded activity. I continue to receive my royalties for this work as well.

The 1968 union card for Elmer Snowden when he was a member of Local 274—the segregated chapter for Black musicians in Philadelphia. Members of this local included other jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nina Simone. Cynthia Sayer owns this card of her jazz hero after receiving it as a gift.

“As you can see, the union has made a real difference to me. They’ve demonstrated that I can count on them to have my back for contracted work.”

Q: Cynthia Sayer was hired to be the official banjo player of what Major League Baseball team?

This question was included in the game Trivial Pursuit (1998 edition). The answer? The New York Yankees.

Being part of a popular 1990s board game is something that Sayer is both proud of and gets a kick out of. “No matter how much I bury this information, that is a thing that people always ask me about,” she says with a laugh. Sayer is not even a baseball fan—it was just a gig she did playing in the Yankees’ promotional band for eight years during the 1980s and 1990s. She was part of the primary “A” band that would perform during games and special events, moving around the stadium, mostly behind home plate and for the more expensive seats. While games were going on the band would sit and watch, and during breaks they would play for the fans. “This was a sought-after gig for baseball fans,” she says. “And I think I was probably the only one in the band who was indifferent to baseball.”

Sayer got to meet the ballplayers, see various celebrities in the box seats, and experience some World Series games, but those are not the moments that stick in her memory. “I remember we had to wear these Yankee outfits that were about 20 sizes too big for me; they were like giant flannel pajamas,” she says. “We would get on television all the time and I would always try to pull my baseball cap over my face because I was embarrassed to be on television. And my poor mother, who despised sports, would sit there and watch the whole game waiting for those occasional moments.”

Sayer remembers the few times the band went up to the press box, which was “a completely different sonic experience” than being down in the stadium, she says. Up there, away from the crowds, it felt intimate, personal, and quiet; you could hear the crack of the bat when it connected with the ball, and just absorb a deeper connection to the actual sport, she says.

Another memorable moment was being fired by George Steinbrenner.

During one special event day, there were multiple promo bands playing outside the stadium as fans arrived. One of the bands (not the one Sayer was in) was playing at the spot where Steinbrenner would always arrive at the stadium. Unfortunately, the moment he arrived was the moment the band was on break. “He got out of his limo and saw the band wasn’t playing and was furious—and fired everybody.” Sayer says. “I thought it was kind of funny. … It was part of the adventure of the gig for me.”


Cynthia Sayer endorses:

‡  Ome Banjos

‡  GHS Strings

‡  Blue Chip Picks

‡   The Realist Banjo Pickups by David Gage

H.E.A.R. Day New York Honors Les Paul

Last week on H.E.A.R. Day New York a panel of medical and health experts discussed the importance of improving hearing conservations for performers, professionals, and those who enjoy listening to music as well. This year Les Paul was honored with the H.E.A.R Leadership Award.

Kathy Peck, ED of H.E.A.R. has this to say:

“Les Paul was a friend of H.E.A.R. Les knew that further work was going to be necessary in the area of music hearing conservation. Now, along with partner the Les Paul Foundation and others, H.E.A.R. presents schools with Listen Smart Workshops and the Listen Smart Film Series that will allow us to continue our mission in providing services and educating the public to hearing conservation.”

We all know musicians suffer from a lot of hearing issues, and that’s why a cause like this is so important. To raise awareness of the real dangers and come up with ways to prevent those dangers from occurring.

Make sure you check out their site hearnet.com for more information.

les paul

Les Paul: The Wizard of Guitar Strings & Gizmos

les paulFrom the time he was a young boy and his mother would let him “take something apart” if he got all his chores done on time, Les Paul has had a drive to learn what makes something work. The family piano, the radio, and various household appliances — Paul took apart whatever he could get his hands on. And invariably it worked better when he was done with it. When he was about nine years old, he got his hands on a guitar, and the world has never been the same. Over the years he tinkered and toyed, figuring out how to get his guitar to play through his radio. And this was just the beginning. He didn’t just want to change the way his instrument sounded live; he wanted to change the way live music sounded when it was recorded.

Paul lives and breathes through his guitar, even at 86. Every Monday night at the Iridium in Manhattan, the Les Paul Trio performs to a packed house. But his playing, which defines his life to this day (despite his fairly severe arthritis), is only a part of what makes Paul the living icon that he is. He is the inventor of the solid body electric guitar — which exists today as Gibson’s most popular Les Paul model — almost unchanged from when it was first introduced in 1952. He also introduced the world to multitrack recording with his 1948 hit “Brazil.” The song featured six guitar parts, all played by Paul. The pioneer of overdubbing and electronic reverb didn’t stop there. He fashioned the first 8-track by stacking eight tape machines on top of one another and synchronizing them to play perfectly together. Virtually all of modern music, whether recorded in the world’s most technologically advanced studios or by someone working with a home-recording system in their basement, is made using innovations sparked by the inventions of Les Paul.

A lifetime member of both Local 802 in New York and Local 47 in Los Angeles, Paul will always be grateful to the union for the assistance given to him when he was in a devastating car accident in 1948 that shattered his right arm and elbow. At Paul’s insistence, the doctors set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle a guitar and pick at the strings.

As a musician, Paul soared to popularity in the ’50s with his late wife, Mary Ford. The combination of Ford on vocals, Paul on guitar — along with Paul’s cutting edge re-cording skills — sold millions of records, including such hits as “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” He has influenced almost all genres of music since the ’50s, especially blues, jazz, country, and southern rock. Today his music of choice is jazz, although he won a GRAMMY in 1977 for Best Country Instrumental Award Performance with the late Chet Atkins for their “Chester and Lester” album. In 2001, Paul received a Technical GRAMMY award.

Paul continues to absorb knowledge like a sponge. “You would think that a person would say ‘Well, I’ve retired, I’m going to go on a boat and just drop a line and wait for that cork to go down,'” says Paul. “Instead, in my case, it’s just a constant learning, a constant curiosity, to see what’s going on — the great steps forward, along with the obstacles that come with progress.

“We have mono, and we’ll get our music to where we’re very proud of it. And then we make it stereo, and the problem becomes twice as tricky. And so then you go to surround sound, and it just goes deeper, deeper, deeper. And then you get to digital and from digital, it goes on and on. It just never ends. It’s amusing, it’s interesting, and it’s scary — it’s just something. It’s a wonderful time with the way we’re progressing, when we think of where we were a couple of hundred years ago. But I’m not sure that we’re not getting to a point where we’re outsmarting ourselves!”

Les Paul is just as likely to tell you about his need for speed as he is to share his passion
for music and the manipulation of sound. But even those stories eventually come around to music.

“This one state trooper pulled me over, and I told him ‘I’m Les Paul, I’m a musician, a guitar-player,’ and he says, ‘Well, I hate music.’ Now how do you hate music? So I thought I might be in trouble, but then I told him that his radar was off. I offered to drive by again at exactly 70. He liked the idea, and since I helped him calibrate his radar gun, he let me go!

“Usually they see the license and say something like, ‘The Les Paul?’ Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I play guitar,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah? You any good?’ Now I’ve always got my guitar in the trunk, so I’ll get it out and hand him the guitar and he’ll start to play, and I’ll show him how he could be better if he did it this way or that way, and here I am with this police officer with his left foot up on the bumper …”

Usually the officer is so ecstatic about getting an impromptu lesson from a guitar legend that he forgets why he pulled him over in the first place.

les paul oldPaul is the first to admit that life as a professional musician has its perks. But he’s not going to tell anyone that it’s easy. “Once in a while someone will come up and tell me that they bought their son a guitar, and I’m tempted to say ‘Why?!'” laughs Paul. “No, that’s terrible advice to give,” he went on, serious. “The guitar is a wonderful, wonderful instrument; it does so much for a person. It solves a lot of problems, helps you put up with the world. I guess this applies to music all around the board; you can always turn to your guitar and shut the world off temporarily.”

For those who don’t play, the guitar has a way of getting under your skin. Which would be the only way to explain why someone suffering from painful arthritis in his hands still shows up to the club every Monday evening to jam. “It’s something musicians can do, which probably most other people can’t, and that is to go to such a ripe old age and continue be able to communicate through your instrument with other people, young, old, it doesn’t matter.” He also feels a responsibility to continue to entertain people for as long as he can. “There’s a thing about jazz; it’s serious, generally speaking,” explains Paul. “I have a whole different approach to it. To me there’s a lot of laughs, lot of humor. Put it this way: people pay to come in, and they probably come with one thought in mind, and that is to be really turned on with a lot playing. Music, music, music. They come in here to get their mind off of their problems and to be entertained; that’s what we do. And when they leave they say, ‘Jeez, I’ve had a wonderful time!’

“I have three other players; they’re all great. There’s Nicki Parrott on bass, she’s just great. There’s Lou Pallo, who has been with me many years. He’s the foundation, he plays the rhythm and the background and he sings. Then I have Frank Vignola, who is a very fine technical guitar player. It’s great to have the three of them up there with me, because there’s a lot of things that I would put on a record — where I could put down multiple tracks — but when I come out on stage I can only do one. With my hands and the arthritis, I’m lucky if I get one-tenth of what I’d like to do. So having these other three musicians with me, we work around it. They just give me great support. That’s where it really shines, the mix of all of us. They work hard!”

And Paul has no intention of slowing down any time soon. In addition to playing every Monday, there are several books that he’s “threatening” to write, as well as several other archival and museum projects he’s involved in. “Every once in while I’ll take on a fistful and go for it,” he says. “It’s like there’s always more, and more, and more.”

Although his one-night-a-week gig is just about all his hands can deal with nowadays, Paul cannot stress enough the importance of practice to an aspiring professional.

“Practice. That’s the thing,” he asserts. “You need to practice all the time. If you really want to be with it, you have to just absolutely, constantly keep on your playing. My advice to anyone is that there just aren’t enough hours in a day; be religious about it. That’s the key.”

The thing about practicing is that playing also breeds creation. With a constant flow of music from your head right out of your fingertips, you never know what you may end up with. “If you spend enough time with it, you can really communicate with that guitar,” says Paul. “You surprise yourself. Before you can think of it, you’ve already played it.”

While the life of a professional musician has got to be one of the most enjoyable careers, it’s also probably one of the most difficult in the sheer amount of time it takes to maintain your craft. “It’s a lot different than being a plumber,” laughs Paul. “But I’ll tell you what, that plumber isn’t jamming at midnight, either! He doesn’t come home and say to his wife, ‘Hey, put your clothes on, I want to take you over and show you this job I just did!’

“Here’s another little bit of wisdom that runs across my mind,” muses Paul, “It’s not so much the intro as it is the ending. It’s easy to walk out on the stage, but you better have something to get the hell off! That’s where you get caught. You get out there and it doesn’t matter — you could be up, down, in the middle, whatever — but when it’s time to leave, you better have something up your sleeve, to be able to give it your best shot!”