Tonawanda News

April 8, 2013

ADAMCZYK: Life and lessons in jazz

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The Tonawanda News

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.

“When I learn a song, I learn it in Ella’s voice,” McNeil observes.

Support comes from a range of versatile and talented local instrumentalists.

“Buffalo is a treasure trove of great jazz musicians. People, the Germans, Italians, Polish, are encouraged to practice the arts,” she says, citing vocalist Peggy Farrell as a friend and motivator.

Some nights it’s Mari McNeil and a piano accompanist, or with a trio of musicians. One night last week in downtown Buffalo’s Tralf, she appeared with the Ladies First Jazz Big Band, a homegrown, 15-piece all-female orchestra, and in one set, sandwiched between an instrumental funk tune and a spoken-word artist who recited a poem while the band played a John Coltrane song, McNeil offered smoky, emotional versions of “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Skylark,” a novelty tune followed by a jazz standard.

Unlike most pop music forms, jazz can accommodate evocative love songs as well as material essentially wisecracks set to music, and McNeil is a fan of both.

“Two zingers to every ballad,” she jokes. Her set list includes songs you may never have heard, like June Christy’s “No Soap No Hope Blues,” Blossom Dearie’s “Rhode Island is Famous for You,” Frank Sinatra’s “Coffee Song” (“Way down among Brazilians, coffee beans grow by the billions, so they've got to find those extra cups to fill; they've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”).

After growing up on Grand Island, getting through Buffalo State College’s art program (“all-nighters in Upton Hall, all the time”), working as a graphic designer in Buffalo and Boston, raising a family, voice lessons “since I was 16,” then starting over in Tonawanda, it must be satisfying to put on a spangly dress, stand on a stage with ace practitioners of the art form behind you and an appreciative audience in front, and deliver a nuanced and elegant “Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me” or other classics from a time when lyrics were paramount and interpretation was crucial.

“It’s a unique emotional connection, an empathetic relationship with the audience. They know what I know. I can sing ‘Black Coffee’ with believability, and classic jazz is the gold standard,” McNeil observes.

Then there was the night, in Buffalo’s Savoy Restaurant, “singing ‘The Nearness of You’ in front of a young, hip and Asian audience. It was a sing-along. They knew the lyrics. They seemed to be respectful of the culture.”

McNeil keeps her hand in that other art of hers, designing material for “the odd pro-bono account, the Kenmore Village Improvement Society,” and it helps she’s married to actor David Lundy, who has worked locally in alternative theater, Buffalo’s Shakespeare in the Park and the Kavinoky Theater, (“the most unegotistical actor I’ve ever met,” she says.)

But even if it’s spinning stories in song from two or more generations ago in a low, earthy voice, it’s a business, Mari McNeil’s new business. 

“Jazz with love,” her business card reads, part of a personal renewal everyone should experience at least once in his or her life. Somehow it seems nothing like the image of jazz, nor the image of business, but there it is, another slice of life’s new definition of normal.

Mari McNeil, jazz singer. It rings well.

UPCOMING PERFORMANCES • Friday -- 8 to 11:30 p.m. at Salvatore's Restaurant, 6461 Transit Road, Cheektowaga • Saturday -- 7 to 9 p.m. at Iris Restaurant, 4334 Maple Road, Amherst • April 18 -- 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Rocking for Hope for Two event at Asbury Hall, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo • MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.marimcneil.com

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.