Cynthia Sayer

March 28, 2018 | By

Ever since I first heard Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” on a Little Golden Record in early childhood, I’ve loved the sound of the banjo. I cottoned to Mickie Finn’s club in San Diego and its successful 1966 TV show, with Mickie herself on the banjo. To see the Mummers’ string band parade in Philadelphia, I braved the coldest of New Year’s Days. And I marveled to watch folk, country, and bluegrass composer-singer John Hartford playing his five-string banjo on the deck of a paddle-wheel river boat out of Chattanooga. With the mid-20th century banjo revival just about over, it was good to hear late 1960s and ’70s rockers, such as Eric Clapton, Tom Waits, Taj Mahal, and the Village Stompers, incorporating banjos into their music. I loved it all.

Yet, as Cynthia Sayer’s terrific Hot Jazz Banjo Show, recently at Birdland, proved, I didn’t know the half of it. In just over an hour, Sayer repeatedly demonstrated her highly celebrated and long-standing mastery of the four-string, chord-fret jazz banjo. At the same time, she most entertainingly brought me up to speed on much of what I had been missing about the banjo. Sayer and her equally committed and dexterous backing trio offered a deliciously packed gamut of the instrument’s usage from the vaudeville era forward through the Swing Era of the 1920s and 30s, up to the banjo revival of the 1950s and 60s. It all started deceptively simply with Sayer standing alone on the stage with her banjo, playing a lovely “Linger Awhile” (Vincent Rose, Harry Owens). She was slowly joined onstage, one at a time, by Dennis Litman, playing clarinet (and, later, with equal aplomb, the violin); Jared Engel, on string bass; and Larry Eagle, on percussion, who entered just in time to underpin the song’s bridge with his washboard, and then to signal the number’s doubled tempo change with all drums blazing. Throughout the set, all three men were justly accorded effective solos on virtually every number.

Three of the show’s selections neatly paid tribute to Sayer’s heroes and influences, at the same time demonstrating three variations on “trad jazz.” An appropriately boisterous “Swing 42” (Django Reinhardt) was dubbed “gypsy jazz” as a nod to Reinhardt’s Romany ancestry. (He played the banjo until he took up the guitar when that replaced the banjo as the handheld string instrument of choice for jazz musicians.) Sayer and company paid tribute to another of her favored forebears, Johnny St. Cyr, the banjo player in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven combo, with Armstrong’s “Melancholy Blues,” proving that the so-called happy instrument could be appropriated to illuminate more downbeat material. Elmer Sawyer, famous for “Harlem Jazz” in the 1920s—but largely forgotten thereafter—was Sayer’s most inspirational hero, she said, represented here by “Them There Eyes” (Maceo Pinkard, William Tracey, Doris Tauber).

Astonishing anomalies abounded in this show, among them: a sprightly amalgam of Eastern European Jewish klezmer music and homegrown jazz, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (Sholom Secunda); and Irish jazz, “Rakes of Kildare” (traditional), a “double jig” in 6/8 time usually played on an Irish tenor banjo. Half-way through this song, Sayer and her group deftly transitioned from their more American sound to an unmistakable “Irish feel.” George Gershwin was honored with a delightful  category-breaker: “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he, himself, had trimmed and adapted for the vaudeville stage. And as if to reinforce the notion that the banjo has remained a mostly upbeat instrument, Sayer closed her show with “I Want to Be Happy” (Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar). For this finale, Litman and Engel left the stage with their regular instruments, only to return with their own banjos to deliver a more traditional, familiar, yet tasty triple threat.

Cynthia Sayer’s Hot Jazz Banjo Show
Birdland – March 15

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

Comments (1)

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  1. GAIL MONACO says:

    I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a show as much as I enjoyed Cynthia Sayer’s amazing Hot Jazz Banjo Show! Perhaps “enjoy” is not the right word? In fact, it is more accurate to say that I was musically transported by Sayer and her band. It was a time travel experience : an amazing selection and head spinning arrangement of music spanning a century. Melancholy Blues and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. And, of course, there was that unforgettable version of Rakes of Kildare. A BRAVO performance all the way around!!!