Jon Cleary is one artist making sure that New Orleans sounds live on. Cleary will be performing with his band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen at Houston’s Continental Club on Friday, September 17.
The British artist was drawn to the New Orleans music scene at a very young age, introduced to the mesmerizing sounds of Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John to name a few by his uncle who lived in New Orleans and helped to feed Cleary a steady diet of New Orleans music from a very young age.
“At family parties he would bring out this bag of amazing records so I got a really good grounding in New Orleans R&B. He brought back suitcases full of 45s and so I listened to all these great records and just more so probably than if I had been born and raised in New Orleans which is really the reality.”
Cleary followed his gut and moved to New Orleans to play music, beginning with a painting job at the historic Maple Leaf Bar, where he still plays to this day and where his uncle had spent many nights chatting with Professor Longhair. “I feel like I met him, but I never actually ever did,” says Cleary of the legendary Professor.
From painting to playing inside, Cleary absorbed the particular style of piano playing along with all of the boogie woogie nuances gaining a reputation around town as the real deal and opening doors for him to serve as a side man to some of the best in the business including Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt and the late Dr. John, who spent one of his final days singing “Lawdy Miss Claudie” with Cleary.
“I came here 40 years ago,” says Cleary after returning home from a summer trip overseas with an additional three-day journey to make it back home following Hurricane Ida’s wrath. “I can’t believe it's been that long. I basically came here for a two week vacation 40 years ago.”
When asked if he ever imagined he would be playing alongside the very names that transfixed his imagination as a young man Cleary says, “Well that's what I secretly hoped would happen but I didn't dare imagine that it ever would actually possibly come true. I’m very lucky to have gotten to learn from some of the masters, who they themselves learned from some of the masters.”
“Sad to say it's an artform that a lot of the younger musicians haven't really pursued just because the nature of the job of the keyboard player has changed,” he says referring to the shift in dynamics and style of the instrument as more bands opted for electric guitar and bass forcing piano players to get louder and go electric as well.
Cleary credits Dr. John and James Booker for really pushing New Orleans piano playing into another dimension with their powerful style.
“The piano as an instrument requires a particular touch and there are things that you do on the piano that you don't do on the other instruments and so there aren't that many people left who actually can play the New Orleans style it seems to me, not here at least in New Orleans which is sort of ironic.”
When discussing the incredibly specific cross pollination of music from New Orleans to England, Cleary explains the significance of the movement in his home country as kids from his mother's generation in the ‘50s looked to New Orleans Jazz and blues as influences creating the skiffle movement.
“The young kids who started in skiffle bands, which basically only required three chords, gave them their first taste of playing, entertaining and making music and those musicians often then, if they stayed the course, went on to develop and play the music that came out of England in the later ‘60s.”
“All the big bands, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, they all started out playing skiffle and skiffle was a direct stepchild of the English musicians who were playing New Orleans traditional jazz.”
Cleary has applied all of his talent and knowledge to his solo projects releasing eight albums and currently working on his ninth, the files of which were thankfully saved from the recent damage his home studio suffered during Ida.
He describes his new album as having a real live feel and though he doesn’t rule out playing a track or two while in town, he does not plan to release it until he and his band can book a tour behind it.
His 2016 release Go Go Juice earned him a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music. The title track features horn arrangements by none other than Allan Toussaint and the album portrays Cleary’s love of New Orleans R&B combined with elements of funk and soul.
“These days I like playing my own songs and also I feel a bit of a responsibility to do what I can to keep and breathe new life into the New Orleans repertoire and let people hear what that stuff sounds like cause it is still good.”
All of his accumulated knowledge, hard work and talent is on high display in his original songs and as a bandleader. “It’s very good discipline to be a side man and also, it pays the bills,” says Cleary.
"I feel a bit of a responsibility to do what I can to keep and breathe new life into the New Orleans repertoire."
“I got to be a side man for a lot of the old musicians who invented New Orleans rhythm and blues who are now sadly gone. Being a side man requires that you develop really big ears and you learn to play in all the different keys and a variety of styles that you can draw on if that's what is required and it makes you a better musician.”
“I wish all band leaders would have done their homework as side men, it makes you a better musician and it makes you a better band leader because you know what it's like for the troops that you're leading.”
With the past two years of shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cleary was able to take a much needed break, one he admits he would never have been able to afford to take on his own accord. He hosted a weekly Quarantini Happy Hour Show where he breaks down the rich musical history of his adopted city and his musical heroes influences on the genre.
Last year he released So Swell on Newvelle Records where he organized an impressive backing band including James Rivers who once backed Professor Longhair.
“I’ve had seven solo shows in the last year and a half and six of them were in the last two weeks,” he says. Cleary sees the benefits of playing solo and with his band, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, with each experience allowing for improvisation but in different capacities.
“There is still a lot of room for improvisation. No two shows are ever the same, especially the way New Orleans musicians perform. The original idea of throwing the sheet music away, everybody improvising and having to listen extra hard, create stuff spontaneously and leave room for the other musicians and step up to the plate when that's what was needed, that first really happened in New Orleans and is a feature of the way New Orleans musicians play.”
Cleary has fond memories of playing in Houston throughout his long career and is looking forward to his return. “I always got nothing but great vibes from Texas audiences they made noise when they were supposed to and they were respectful when it's time to listen.”
“The audience is kind of like the congregation in a church on Sunday morning down here and that's the battery that feeds the electricity in the room when you're performing. I rely on the audience to generate high voltage so I get enough to drive all my engines and my engines are pretty big and require a lot of energy. I can do it by myself, but it's nice when you get wind under your wings and then the whole thing takes off and Texas audiences have always done that for me.”
Jon Cleary And The Absolute Monster Gentlemen will perform Friday, September 17 at The Continental Club, 3700 Main. Doors at 8 p.m., Music starts at 9 p.m., $25-40.