Arts & Entertainment

Buffalo Jazz Vocalist Mari McNeil Discusses Finding Your Passion

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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
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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.

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“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.

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