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Top-Notch Banjo Player Ready to Bring Hot Swing Jazz to Mt.Kisco

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Acclaimed jazz banjoist Cynthia Sayer will be performing this Saturday night at Jazz on Main in Mount Kisco.

For some listeners, the banjo and jazz might not be thought of in the same sentence when associating instruments to certain genres of music.

But for acclaimed four-string jazz banjoist Cynthia Sayer, who has enjoyed a long and fulfilling music career, nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, in the 1920s into the ‘30s, banjo was the prominent instrument in jazz.

“There is a world of jazz banjo out there and it goes with names – New Orleans jazz, pop jazz, early jazz, hot swing and different names like that, and historically, it was banjo that was so popular through the Roaring ‘20s and up to about the mid- ‘30s,” said Sayer, who lives in Manhattan. “If you played guitar, it was hard to get a job. You really needed to play banjo.”

On Saturday evening Sayer will bring that old-time hot swing sound with a modern twist to local audiences with her debut performance at Jazz on Main in Mount Kisco. She will appear with Sara Caswell, a Grammy-nominated violinist, and string bassist Jen Hodge.

What is special for Sayer is that the appearance will be an all-woman trio. There was a time early in her career that when she showed up for gigs, those in the house would assume she was the singer because women weren’t thought of as instrumentalists. (Sayer, in fact, does sing.) Since she got her start, however, that has changed.

“With all the ups and downs and problems in the world that we have, one thing that has changed right before my eyes is an enormous amount of gender and racial diversity in early jazz, and that has been really wonderful,” Sayer said. “Now there’s plenty of top top-level women out there, but I still don’t get to play in all-women (groups) very often. This is an extra treat.”

Sayer, now 62, started playing banjo at 13 because her parents preferred that she play something other than the drums when growing up in Scotch Plains, N.J. They chose the banjo for her and placed it on her bed when she came home from school one day because there was a local music instructor who taught the instrument.

Sayer would soon be intrigued by the banjo. At Ithaca College, were she majored in English, she started to get gigs across upstate New York, particularly during time off from school. A plan to go to law school was put on hold for a year or two, while Sayer performed.

“It was fun. I would make money, I wasn’t really thinking about it as a career…and I graduated college with the intent of going to law school, and I decided it would be really fun and great to play music for a year or two before I did these proper, appropriate things,” she said.

Sayer never went to law school. The American Banjo Hall of Famer rose to prominence as a founding member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, and has also appeared with various orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

While performing has been at the heart of her career, it is by no means everything she has done. Sayer has been a music educator and a band leader and has gone on the road to deliver talks about jazz in addition to playing.

“It took a while for me to appreciate the way your career grows,” Sayer said. “You’re at a computer doing the same things you do at any job. There’s contracts, there’s negotiations, there’s marketing, there’s all of these things which are part of running a business.”

Sayer is looking forward to performing at Jazz on Main. Some musician colleagues are expected to attend, and perhaps even her nephew who is moving to the village this week.

For Sayer it’s difficult to believe her journey, from almost going to law school to being one of todays’ preeminent banjoists.

“To become a banjo player was a very weird thing, even to me,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful life. I feel like my job is giving joy to people through music. It’s a pretty great job to have.”

Cynthia Sayer’s Hot Swing Trio will be performing at Jazz on Main at 7 p.m. It is located at 37 S. Moger Ave. in Mount Kisco. The standard cover charge is $35; dinner and the show are $98.

For reservations and more information, visit

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