Jim McNeely was born in Chicago. In 1975 he received his B.Mus. in composition from the University of Illinois and moved to New York City. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. He spent six years as a featured soloist with that band and its successor, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (now The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). 1981 saw the beginning of Jim’s 4-year tenure as pianist/composer with the Stan Getz Quartet. From 1990 until 1995 he held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet. At the present time, he leads his own tentet, his own trio, and he appears as soloist at concerts and festivals worldwide.
Jim’s reputation as composer/arranger and conductor for large jazz bands continues to flourish, and has earned him 12 Grammy nominations. In 1996 he re-joined The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and Composer-in Residence. He is the former chief conductor, and now composer-in-residence, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, where he has collaborated on projects with artists such as Dave Holland, John Scofield, Luciana Souza, Branford Marsalis, Dave Douglas, Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others. Other recent work includes projects with the Danish Radio Big Band (where he was chief conductor for five years), the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Jazz Orchestra of the Conertgebouw. The New York Times has called his writing “exhilarating”; DownBeat has said that his music is “eloquent enough to be profound”. And he won a Grammy for his work on the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard” on Planet Arts Records.
Jim has appeared as sideman on numerous recordings led by major artists such as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, and Phil Woods. He has numerous albums under his own name. The latest is “Rituals”, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Chris Potter (“…a fascinating listen, a dramatic homage of breathtaking breadth and sophistication that succeeds on every level. ✶✶✶✶✶”—Ed Enright, DownBeat).
Teaching is also an important element of Jim’s work. He is professor emeritus in jazz composition at Manhattan School of Music. He has held positions at William Paterson University and New York University. He was also involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for 24 years, including 16 years as musical director. He has appeared at numerous college jazz festivals in the U.S. as performer and clinician. He has also done clinics and major residencies at dozens of institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt.