Tonawanda News

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April 8, 2013

ADAMCZYK: Life and lessons in jazz

Tonawanda News — It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said there are no second acts in American lives. Mari McNeil of the Town of Tonawanda, professional jazz singer, would likely tell Fitzgerald he should get out more.

McNeil’s story, is typical, atypical and unfolding. Art school, a career in graphic design, marriage and raising two children, followed by remarriage, reorientation and hitting the restart button on life. At age 52, she doesn’t mind saying, “I want it known I’m a jazz singer.”

The approach to her career is business-like. Keep assiduous records, practice, study and “perform Thursdays, Friday, Saturdays. I’ve worked all my life. At 14 I was cleaning houses,” she notes.

The jazz life these days is not quite the way it is depicted in movies. The history of this expressive and truly American art form is strewn with human wreckage, damage done by racism, substance abuse and marginalization, but the world of 21st-century jazz provides a nearly self-conscious reversal of all that. McNeil and her accompanists, she says, “were all nerds growing up. They weren’t the hippest people on earth. They are now,” adding that even in the saloon culture where jazz thrives, her off-duty musicians busy themselves with …

“Herbal tea.”

It helps an aspiring jazz singer to have inspiration and support, and McNeil’s career has plenty. She mentions laid-back, in-control Geri Southern as a key influence, she of the West Coast jazz movement of the late 1950s, as well as Toronto’s Holly Cole, whose singing, the way she “twists it,” McNeil says, can be compared to elegant bomb-throwing. There’s Diana Krall, the current popular favorite in oh-so-grown-up delivery, and of course, Ella Fitzgerald, who occupies the same pillar in jazz singing as Thomas Jefferson does in American history.

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