Seeing Cleary Jon Cleary’s love for New Orleans sounds
The Aspen Times
Part of Jon Cleary’s attraction to the music of New Orleans is perfectly logical. Various family members were big fans of Big Easy music, and leading the way was Cleary’s uncle, also named Jon, who had lived for a while in New Orleans.
“So I got introduced by someone who saw it firsthand,” Cleary said. “He sent me lessons about Professor Longhair, then brought back stacks of 45s for me to go through. He’d play me these records, point out who played which solo.”
And part of Cleary’s fascination with the music is not so easy to explain. In his early teens, Cleary loved “Lady Marmalade,” by the girl group Labelle, and Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.” It wasn’t till years later that Cleary learned that both recordings had New Orleans roots. “Lady Marmalade” was co-produced by Allen Toussaint, a prominent New Orleans pianist and composer. On “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” Palmer was backed by the Meters, the iconic New Orleans funk band.
“I think I was hardwired somehow,” Cleary said. “I loved all kinds of music, but New Orleans was what really resonated with me. That syncopation, I really gravitated toward that, that syncopation from old jazz, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory. And the one-six-two-five chord changes. And the rawness of the 1950s rock ’n’ roll. And Professor Longhair.”
One thing that does not explain this attraction is geography. Cleary was born and raised in the county of Kent, in the extreme southeast of England. His father played the English pop style of the ’50s known as skiffle, and around the house there could be heard a lot of traditional Irish music.
“Anything with soul, really,” Cleary, who is 50, explained.
But for pure soulfulness, nothing could match what was coming from that oddball city in southern Louisiana, where Spanish, French, African and Caribbean influences coalesced in a style that came to be called jazz. At age 17, as soon as he finished school, Cleary headed to New Orleans with dreams of seeing his favorite musicians and of possibly even learning how to play piano from Dr. John, one of his many idols.
“There was no question I was going to New Orleans. And it was definitely for the music,” he said.
Cleary uses an English term to describe himself — a trainspotter, someone obsessed with trivial details (like, perhaps, the fact that the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee takes its name from “Desitively Bonnaroo,” the 1974 Dr. John album that features Allen Toussaint and the Meters). But as familiar as Cleary was with the music of New Orleans, he arrived in the city for the first time as a 17-year-old, entirely innocent.
“It was an adventure. Youthful hardiness. I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
Even with few expectations, Cleary was stunned by what he found. The musicians who had become his heroes from an ocean away were faint presences in their hometown.
“There wasn’t that much live music going on. It was a shock to come to New Orleans as a kid and find that most people didn’t know anything about it,” Cleary recalled. “Clarence Henry, Huey Smith — very rarely would you see them play. I expected they’d be gigging all the time. I saw Huey Smith play once. And when they did play, it was all white kids on Uptown clubs. No black guys my age. That was disappointing. I guess what’s on your doorstep, sometimes you don’t realize it’s there.”
Still, Cleary believes the forces were telling him to stay. He landed a six-month job painting the bar at the Maple Leaf, a funky Uptown joint that has a storied place in New Orleans music history. He lived around the corner, and the job came with the perk of free admission to the performances. The regular Tuesday night gig was by James Booker, a pianist who had not shown up on Cleary’s radar but was a respected and influential figure. Booker would make his mark on Cleary.
“He would hang out at the bar. I wasn’t hip to him, but he was the one player I had access to,” Cleary said.
Cleary opted to stay in New Orleans, where he has lived most of the past 33 years.
“It was quite clear, I wanted it to be a natural thing.” Cleary, who lives in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, said of the New Orleans influence in his playing. “And the only way to do that was to live in New Orleans. Otherwise you’re an imitator. You hear someone who’s not from New Orleans, you notice it. It’s the subtleties.”
Despite the English accent, Cleary has become a New Orleans institution of his own. He has a long-running band, Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, that specializes in Louisiana-bred R&B and features all New Orleans-born players (Cleary excepted). The band’s most recent album, “Occapella,” from 2012, features New Orleans classics including “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky” and Toussaint’s “Southern Nights.” Cleary also plays regularly in a trio format. This weekend, he appears in Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Cafe series at the Little Nell, in the stripped-down combo, which he says is the best way to hear the New Orleans influence in his playing. Cleary regularly rotates his rhythm section. Playing with him this weekend are bassist Cornell Williams, from the Absolute Monster Gentlemen; and Raymond Weber, who has played in Dumpstaphunk, with Ivan Neville and in the solo projects of Phish’s Trey Anastasio.
Cleary also ventures outside the local sphere. He was a featured member of Bonnie Raitt’s band for 10 years and still does the occasional sit-in with Raitt when he can.
“I could have made a career out of that. But I was getting so many calls for gigs of my own,” he said.
He plays with Taj Mahal and was a member of Taj’s band that played a free show last summer in Aspen’s Wagner Park. He also plays some with guitarist John Scofield in a group that includes New Orleans bassist George Porter Jr.
Cleary has even resided outside of Louisiana for stretches. He spent a few years in New York and, for visa reasons, a few back in England. But his heart is in New Orleans. He is pleased to report that live music has had a resurgence in the city since he first arrived. But even if it had not, New Orleans still would be the world’s critical music spot in his eyes.
“Music cities are music cities in different ways. New York is a metropolis and attracts musicians from around the world to live there. Los Angeles has the recording industry,” Cleary said. “New Orleans is a music city in a different way. Music in New Orleans is a soundtrack to a way of life. It’s a bodily function, a tradition. It accompanies funerals, Mardi Gras.
“In Los Angeles or Nashville, when the business goes away, the music stops. All the business could leave New Orleans, and they’ll still be playing. The music there is real.”
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