In the hallowed ranks of New Orleans “piano professors,” Jon Cleary is on the
Since his childhood, Cleary was in the presence of great New Orleans music because of his uncle and musical parents, even though he is an Englishman, born in Kent in 1962. Pianos would need more keys if each of Cleary’s accolades were on them. Jon Cleary performs with and has written for a number of music luminaries, including Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Ryan Adams and Eric Burdon. His Bywater home is suitable as a place to write, play and watch the St. Patrick’s Day “parade” commence from his balcony with Guinness in hand. These are the same hands that slap, tickle and pound various pianos in various clubs and at many festivals, including Jazz Fest in New Orleans and BluesFest in London this year. Cleary plays on his own and with his two bands, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen and the Philthy Phew. The self-effacing Cleary moved to New Orleans in 1981 and later found himself taking the Monday night spot of his childhood idol, Professor Longhair, at Tipitina’s. His funk and R&B style have propelled him and his fame through the decades. He was kind and spent some time with NOL recently.
Why did you come to New Orleans from England?
I was about 17 and had just left school and my ambition was to come to New Orleans and see Professor Longhair. Then I was on a bus one morning and I opened up the music paper and it said that Professor Longhair had died last week. My heart was shattered. Then in the ’80s, I got his old gig on Monday nights at Tipitina’s and I got James Booker’s old gig at the Maple Leaf on Tuesday nights. I felt like I was not worthy. I think by default I got these gigs. In that time, this New Orleans piano tradition was almost in danger of dying out really. Dr. John was in New York, Booker had died and Allen Toussaint didn’t really do that many gigs at that time. Harry Connick was coming up at that time and wasn’t playing around town that much, so I got gigs by default. I was well-grounded in New Orleans R&B from my uncle who had lived here and brought us 45s of New Orleans music back in England.
As a New Orleans music historian, is the rumor true that Elvis got his sound from Professor Longhair?
I have never heard that before. I have heard a lot of each of their records and I don’t see any real link other than the fact that it was the ’50s and it was New Orleans R&B and was popular in all of its various forms.
Do you prefer playing in clubs or arenas?
There are good and bad clubs and good and bad arena gigs and everything in between. It depends on the night and the audience and the instrument that you’re playing and how good or bad you’re performing that night or how the audience is responding. I have had great club gigs and ones that are a struggle. I have played arena gigs with Bonnie Raitt where you have this adoring audience and you have a nice solo and you realize that there are 6,000 people out there that just really dug it and you get a nice big round of applause. Generally speaking, an intimate club atmosphere is where you get the best, most intimate kind of feedback and we’re lucky as musicians, versus others that work in various areas of the arts, whether it be writers or painters, we get instant gratification for it. The round of applause is immediate and you don’t have to wait around for the glowing reviews like a writer does. It’s like the alternator in a car engine where you need that constant input of energy from an audience to allow you to keep putting a lot of energy out as a performer.
Jazz Fest is coming up!
Yes, I always look forward to playing at Jazz Fest and this year’s exciting for me, in general. I have a trio I am working with which allows me to do a few of the different lineups. It’s more of an acoustic band that features the New Orleans piano. I have another band that’s called The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, which is an R&B and soul band and I am doing a bit of both this year. I am doing two AMG shows on each Saturday night of Jazz Fest with one at the Maple Leaf and one at Le Petit Theatre in the French Quarter, which holds about 350 people right by Jackson Square. I imagine it’s a great place to play a show. So I’ll get to flex a few musical muscles.
What about London?
I am really looking forward to playing the BluesFest there, yes. It’ll be with my trio, which will allow me to be back in England for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party.
What makes something funky?
In a musical context, funk is what happens when you accent odd fractions of a bar. A bar is four beats. If you place a heavy accent on an off-beat, that is what makes you move. It upsets the balance a little bit. But an accent only works if it comes after something that’s played straight. If everything is an off-beat, it ceases to be funky. It’s the build up and release of tension by contrasting straight beats and odd beats and the way you do it is a matter of taste and they’ve been doing it very well here in New Orleans for the last 100 years. There is a build up of tension as we breathe in and then you relax when you breathe out. It’s apparent in music and sex. There are all sorts of parallels. It happens in the seasons in nature, too. In music, you build up that tension, tightening and tightening and tightening and then you release it, that’s what makes music feel good. That’s what moves you. That’s the perennial struggle.
What’s your next project?
I am sitting here in my studio now working on an album of Allen Toussaint tunes. He’s one of my favorite songwriters and has been great inspiration over the years. He was a master at making things funky. He would orchestrate an entire band to do precisely that. So, it has been a lot of fun picking out some well-known tunes and some very obscure ones and not copying them, but taking each song apart, reducing it to its constituent elements and seeing how clever he was that he put all of this stuff together. Then you put it back together, only changed, while retaining the nub of what makes it work. I am playing most of the instruments myself. I should be ready soon after Jazz Fest.