Arts & Entertainment

Buffalo Jazz Vocalist Mari McNeil Discusses Finding Your Passion

Buffalo jazz singer Mari McNeil spoke and performed at Protocol Restaurant during the February meeting of the Buffalo Niagara Chapter of New York Women Inc. Credits: Lauren Zazzara

AMHERST, NY – “I think I’m the best nursing home singer there ever was. There’s no competition,” Mari McNeil said proudly to group of approximately 40 women at Protocol Restaurant. Her audience laughed, but no one doubted her claim.

McNeil was the guest speaker at the February meeting of the Buffalo Niagara Chapter of New York State Women Inc. McNeil is a corporate-employee-turned-jazz-vocalist, so the event was aptly named “Follow Your Bliss: Changing Your Career.”

She told the group a little of her history: For 30 years she had been a graphic designer and marketer and realized she was working at a failing bank after being assigned to a group project to improve advertising. Then she asked her boss about the budget.

Sign Up for E-News

“His face turned red. He got angry, leaned over the desk, pointed at me in the face: ‘There is no more money. Be creative,’ ” she recalled. “My jaw fell down and opened, and it was at that moment I should have stood up and walked out. But I didn’t. I didn’t. I stayed three more months. I knew I had to make a change.”

McNeil said one career option stood out to her in particular.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I loved to sing,” she said. “I loved to entertain. You could see it way back. I’d put on shows when I was 12, 11, 10, making money for the SPCA, bringing them a big old bag of coins. That’s what I loved to do.”

However, she said she was too afraid to pursue her passion earlier in life.

“I thought I was too ugly, too short, not good enough, all of the things we think about ourselves, those negative images,” she said. “Singers are tall and beautiful, and they have all this charisma, and I just felt like an ugly little troll.”

The audience chuckled at this. Clearly, McNeil was not an ugly little troll.

But McNeil said she was sick of those self-doubts holding her back.

“I started thinking, if I were on my deathbed, and I looked back on my life, do I want to think of myself as a person who was too fearful? Who allowed their own self-doubts to trip them up and hamstring them and keep them from the thing they love the most? I don’t want to be that person,” she said emphatically.

So, she started figuring out the financials of a career in music. She met with people in the jazz industry, and she made a CD. She then performed a track from that CD about lost love. She serenaded the audience, her face wistful and her voice pure, as she sang, “What can you do when a love affair is through?”

She then went on to describe how she struggled performing in the Buffalo bar scene.

“Buffalo is filled with wonderful, wonderful jazz musicians, and they’re all going for the same gigs. And jazz isn’t an expanding market. It’s a shrinking market,” she said.

She was playing three-to-four hour gigs and hardly making enough money. And the bar owners were not helping her out either.

“What they want to know is how many people you can bring in and how hammered they’re all going to get,” she said. “My fans don’t get hammered. They have a glass or two of wine and an hors d’oeuvre.”

McNeil was getting discouraged. She visited her dying friend, musician Jeffrey Mikulski, in the hospital and told him how she felt. He could not speak, so he wrote his answer on a whiteboard: “Change the paradigm.”

“I was like, ‘What’s a paradigm?’ ” The audience burst into laughter at this. But she continued, “I didn’t ask him because I didn’t want to seem stupid. But I was like, ‘Ok, he means to change my thinking, I think. Like if they zig, I need to zag. If they’re doing this, I need to do that. I need to think creatively. I need to break out of the box I’m in.’ ”

So, she traded in her huge sound system for a more portable one and looked for other avenues on which to carry her jazz-singing career. She thought about her mother’s nursing home. She figured the people there needed entertainers, and she could entertain. At the nursing home, in one hour she made as much as three or four hours at a bar.

“The audience exists right there,” she said. “I don’t have to promote myself. They all come to me…They love my music. In a bar everybody’s talking, talking, talking over my music. Sometimes they listen; it’s not a bad gig. But this is like they’re hanging on your every word. They’re singing; they’re dancing; they’re getting into it. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s the music of their lives.’ ”

So, she started calling nursing homes about performing and sending them brochures. She now performs at over 60 facilities in Western New York and has over 150 performances scheduled for 2016 and 2017.

“And here’s the thing: I’m HAPPY.” She drew out that last word. “And my life is joyful. I feel as though I’m doing God’s work.”

To give her audience some guidance on following their passions, she showed a handout she had created. It had a list of questions to ask when considering pursuing their passions, including finding out "what your passion is"; how to financially pursue it (making sacrifices, etc.), and how to be adaptable enough to deal with failure and not let ego get in the way.

Before finishing her presentation with a lively song-and-dance performance of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” she recounted how her father's dying made her realize how short life really is.

She asked, “Do you really want to be spending another second of this doing something that you hate or don’t like or aren’t energized by or don’t feel as though God is using you to your full potential?”

McNeil’s next performance will be Sunday, Feb. 21, at Coco Bar & Bistro in Buffalo.

To learn more about McNeil, vist her Glitter & Jazz blog.

# # #

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Greater Olean

After a 46-year absence, I'm Still at Home on Bona Radio

A timeworn idiom asserts that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.  As a retired guy, floating around in my mid-sixties, I easily qualify as an “old dog.” But since September I’ve been doing a weekly radio show on St. Bonaventure University’s radio station, WSBU FM, 88.3, the Buzz, and I’m thinking that perhaps that old negative phrase can be turned into a ...

Self-Defense Empowers Women

Real estate agent Mary Stachowicz fears becoming a victim of violence.

Why? Because she shows houses to groups of men by herself.

Stachowicz voiced those fears after the Jan. 27 “Beyond Self Defense Seminar” she attended at AKT Combatives Academy in Olean. And she said she believed that in order to overcome this fear, it would be valuable to learn self-defense.

“My son ...

The Story of Punxsutawney Phil

With Groundhog Day landing on Friday this year, thousands will watch in person and even more will tune in from home to see Punxsutawney Phil make his yearly prediction.

As legend has it, if Phil sees his shadow at dusk on Feb. 2, six more weeks of winter are on its way. If Phil doesn’t see his shadow, and early spring can be expected.

Phil may very well be the world’s second ...

Upcoming Events

Mon, February 26, 10:00 AM

Cuba Circulating Library, Cuba

Cabin Fever Playgroup


Mon, February 26, 1:30 PM

Olean Public Library, Olean

Car Air Freshener Craft

Arts & Entertainment

Mon, February 26, 6:30 PM

Olean Public Library, Olean

Reading the Rainbow

Arts & Entertainment Education

CRCF grant gives $22 thousand for biennial, artist support

February 20, 2018

ALLEGANY, NY -- The Cattaraugus County Arts Council recently received a $22,207 grant from the F. Donald Kenney Fund at the Cattaraugus Region Community Foundation, once again in support of the Southern Tier Biennial Art Show.

The endowment fund was established through Mr. Kenney’s estate to support the biennial art exhibition in perpetuity.

A graduate of Olean High School, Holy Cross ...

Exhibit Opening at JCC's Olean Campus Offers New Ways to Visualize Disease and Recovery

OLEAN, NY -- A new exhibition, titled “Artist/Patient/Advocate: Works by Elizabeth Jameson and Ted Meyer,” offers new ways of visualizing disease and recovery.

Opening Friday from 6-8 p.m. in the Center Gallery on the Jamestown Community College Olean campus, this exhibit features artwork that incorporates diagnostic brain scans, photographs and rubbings taken from body scars. Los ...

'A Day in the Life': One Transportation Supervisor Serves Portville and Olean

PORTVILLE, NY – A whiteboard with dozens of destinations and vehicle numbers written in various colors sits inside the Portville bus garage, ready to be changed at any moment. David Youngs, the transportation supervisor of the Portville and Olean School Districts, knows that before 2 almost every afternoon, he is likely to receive an email changing the entire meticulously planned ...

'A Day in the Life' Follows Della Moore of the African American Center for Cultural Development

OLEAN, NY – When Della Moore walks down the street, she greets everyone she passes and makes sure to ask, “How are you doing?” 

From the moment I joined her at the 7-Eleven on a cloudy, cold December morning until we finished making our stops along State and North Union streets, she remained ...

'Day in the Life' Follows Warehouse Selector Justus Elliot

OLEAN, NY -- For Justus Elliot, time and pace are essential. As a warehouse selector for Olean Wholesale Grocery Co-Op, most of the 21-year-old’s job calls for efficiency.

“Everything is time-based," Elliot explained. "One hundred percent is the norm, and it’s what we work for every day. If our score is less, then we are moving too slow, and we kick it into ...

Happy Veterans Day, Mom

What began as an attempt to boost her GPA soon turned into a 22-year career for my mom, Ramona Lee Discavage.

On the first day of her freshman year at St. Bonaventure University in 1989, members of the Army ROTC Seneca Battalion helped incoming freshmen move their stuff into their dorm rooms.  Afterward, they invited all of the freshmen to a lunch.

“When they described the ...

Lynn Kemp: ‘Best Soldier I Could Be’

Lynn Kemp is nearing 95 and knows he has lived a good life.

“The good Lord has been awful good to me,” recalled the lifelong resident of Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania. “I never refused an order. I tried to be the best soldier I could be. I don’t know what your relationship is with God, but mine is pretty close.”

Born Oct. 29, 1920, Lynn grew up in a home on Turkey ...

WW II museum provides role models for young people

When Steve Appleby asks area students if they know Snoop Dog, Eminem, Kanye West, the Kardashians, Parris Hilton or Miley Cyrus, they answer yes. Then Appleby will ask which of them knows Jason Dunham is, and the students will not have a clue.

Appleby will explain that Jason Dunham was a Marine from Scio, in Allegany County, New York, who was killed in Iraq in 2006 after jumping on a grenade ...