McNeely was born in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Illinois, and moved to New York City in 1975. In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. 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). In 1981 he began a four-year tenure as pianist/composer with the Stan Getz Quartet. From 1990 until 1995 he held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet. In 1996 he re-joined the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and composer-in-residence, a position that he still holds. From 1998 to 2003 he was chief conductor of the DR Big Band in Copenhagen, Denmark, and is currently chief conductor of the HR (Hessischer Rundfunk) Big Band in Frankfurt, Germany. He continues to appear as guest with many of Europe's leading jazz orchestras such as The Metropole Orchestra (The Netherlands) and The Stockholm Jazz Orchestra (Sweden). McNeely also leads his own tentet, his own trio, and appears as soloist at concerts and festivals worldwide. He has recorded more than a dozen CDs under his own name, earning nine Grammy nominations between 1997 and 2006. In 2008, he was awarded a Grammy with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for their album Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard (Planet Arts).
^Wise, Robert. "Eclectic Sounds of New Jersey, Echoing From Coast to Coast", The New York Times, February 8, 2004. Accessed August 18, 2012. "Nominated in various jazz categories are the saxophonist and Newark native Wayne Shorter; the pianist Keith Jarrett, from western New Jersey; the percussionist and Newark resident Stefon Harris; and the pianist, composer and arranger Jim McNeely, of Montclair, has been nominated for best instrumental arrangement for an album by Renee Rosnes and the Danish Radio Big Band."