Cleary found his groove as a Brit in the Bayou
July 11, 2005
Jon Cleary’s 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 Johnson’s 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 learned to play on his grandmother’s piano. And Johnson was a guitarist, taught by Cleary’s 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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. “I’d 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 Cleary’s 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 city’s musical history, the teenage Cleary couldn’t 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 couldn’t have contrasted more with England’s 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 Cleary’s dreams didn’t 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 hasn’t 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, wasn’t 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 weren’t 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 Longhair’s “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 Armstrong’s lyrics: “A Creole tune that fills the air/I dream about magnolias in bloom/And I’m 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 city’s 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 someone’s 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 Cleary’s 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, who brings his band to a pair of valley dates: Wednesday, July 20 in the Glenwood Summer of Jazz series, and Thursday, July 21 at the Belly Up. “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 1999’s “Moonburn,” he has accelerated. Over the last three years, he has released a pair of albums of mostly original material: 2002’s “Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen” and last year’s “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 Cleary’s records, played a few of Cleary’s songs for Taj Mahal. Cleary found himself contributing a pair of tunes and keyboard tracks to Taj’s 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 isn’t 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 aren’t 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 – that’s unbeatable,” he said. “That balances it out a lot.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org