Cleary found his groove as a Brit in the Bayou | AspenTimes.com

Cleary found his groove as a Brit in the Bayou

Stewart Oksenhorn

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Jon Clearys uncle, Johnny Johnson, is a traveler, so the Cleary family could expect the unexpected when Uncle Johnny called to announce his latest whereabouts. On one occasion, Johnson phoned back to his family in England from the middle of the Sahara desert, where he had spent the previous six months.But by far Johnsons most captivating port of call, at least as far as his nephew was concerned, was that odd confluence of Caribbean, American, African, Spanish and French culture at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans. The whole Cleary family were musicians: his mother was a singer; Cleary who brings his band to Aspens Belly Up tonight learned to play on his grandmothers piano. And Johnson was a guitarist, taught by Clearys father. So when Uncle Johnny would return from his frequent visits to New Orleans, Cleary got something far more interesting than apparel with the slogan, Someone Went to the Big Easy and All I Got Was This Stinkin T-Shirt.He came back with two suitcases of 45s, obscure 50s r & b stuff, said Cleary, recalling a visit from Johnson in the mid-70s. I made a beeline for it; I couldnt put the next record on the player fast enough.It was a treasure trove of New Orleans sounds: Dave Bartholomew and James Booker, Ernie K. Doe and Huey Piano Smith & the Clowns. And especially, a distinctive singer and pianist who went by the name Professor Longhair. Cleary learned how to play it all on piano. It wasnt just the sounds, however those rollicking pianos, funky rhythms and lyrics about parades and Indians that worked their magic on the young Cleary. Johnson would also send posters and postcards that seemed to describe another planet to a boy born in London and raised in Kent.My uncle was a bit of an artist, and he wrote about this amazing old man, Professor Longhair, who was playing across the street, and descriptions of these second-line bands, recalled Cleary. Id fall asleep looking at posters of the Steamboat President, early Jazz Fest posters telling you who was playing and where you could buy tickets.Brits of Clearys generation were in the custom of taking time off from their studies before entering university. Little surprise, then, that when Cleary was 17, he shipped out for New Orleans. I was quite desperate to get there, he said.Despite knowing the citys musical history, the teenage Cleary couldnt have known what he was in for. It was his first trip overseas, his first time away from his family. The sticky-hot air and the spicy-hot cuisine couldnt have contrasted more with Englands chilly dampness and bland food. His hero, Henry Byrd known better by the iconic name Professor Longhair had just died, at the age of 62. It would not have been surprising if the place of Clearys dreams didnt live up to expectations.It was even better, said Cleary, who has lived almost all of the last 25 years in New Orleans, most recently in the Bywater neighborhood, three blocks from the Mississippi River. Coming from England at a time when the economy was depressed, very grim. New Orleans was in a boom time; the oil money was flowing in fast and thick.Cleary had already begun his music career. In England, he had played in reggae and punk bands, capitalizing on the trends of the time. But in New Orleans, he found a scene that had little to do with trendiness and everything to do with depth and history. Asked where he first lived, he replied, with a good bit of sincerity, the Maple Leaf an uptown bar where he watched keyboardist James Booker practice and where Cleary himself played regularly. The musician was wholly transformed, in a manner that hasnt faded over 25 years.I came to New Orleans and all the punk stuff seemed really stupid, said Cleary, whose move included a shift from guitar back to piano. I had seen the punk bands, and they just played with all they had, really hard. In New Orleans, I saw people playing really hard but they could really play.Cleary, still in his early 20s at the time, wasnt ready to be transplanted just yet. He returned to London to see his family, and learn the ropes as a bandleader. The New Orleans sounds werent about to release their hold, however, and finding bandmates in London who could play the rhythms of the Meters funk classic Cissy Strut or nail the spirit of Professor Longhairs Big Chief was futile. One rainy night in a dank southeastern London pub, while singing Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? Cleary recognized the poignancy of Louis Armstrongs lyrics: A Creole tune that fills the air/I dream about magnolias in bloom/And Im wishin I was there. The next day, Cleary bought a plane ticket to bring him back to the Bayou.Once back, Cleary got a gig playing a series of concerts in New Orleans downtown business district. The pick-up band for his first date included three of the citys contemporary icons: bassist George Porter of the Meters, guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington and drummer Kenneth Blevins.They were just guys out of a history book, said Cleary, whose accent remains pure British. To get someones phone number and sheepishly ask them to do a gig and have them show up I felt spoiled.Those early concerts revolved around the thick New Orleans songbook and a rotating cast of players. But there was little rehearsal, which meant Clearys songwriting, an increasingly big focus, received little attention. So 10 years ago, he formed the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, a steady group featuring New Orleans players Derwin Perkins on guitar and Cornell C. Williams on bass.That was born out of a desire to actually play my songs, said Cleary. Before that, I was in the position of having all these great rhythm sections, but putting together a different band each night.Cleary released his first CD, Alligator Lips and Dirty Rice, in 1989; it would be a decade before he released another. But since 1999s Moonburn, he has accelerated. Over the last three years, he has released a pair of albums of mostly original material: 2002s Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen and last years Pin Your Spin. The songs and the sounds reflect a complete embrace of his adopted hometown.Cleary would likely be even further along in his own career if not for the roots music stars who insist on hiring him for their own projects. In the late 80s, producer John Porter, who would go on to produce several of Clearys records, played a few of Clearys songs for Taj Mahal. Cleary found himself contributing a pair of tunes and keyboard tracks to Tajs 1996 album Phantom Blues. Another guest on the recording was Bonnie Raitt, who gave Cleary a spot in her band, which he has held for six years.Over 25 years, Cleary has developed a well-rounded perspective on New Orleans. He is all too familiar with the flaws: the horrendous public education system, the poverty, all the things that earn it the nickname the city that care forgot. Cleary likens New Orleans to a third-world country. Even on the music side, it isnt all pralines and cream. The lack of a real music industry as opposed to the music itself, of which there is an abundance means people arent motivated to become bandleaders and songwriters. Cleary wishes there was a more vital movement forward among his contemporaries.On the other hand, he has adapted well to the food and the weather. And as far as the culture of music, well, there are pleasure found nowhere but New Orleans.Going to the store, coming home and turning the corner, and seeing 300 people coming down the street doing a second line thats unbeatable, he said. That balances it out a lot.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com