Video: JOHN CLEARY’s New Program for Performing Arts Centers: 100 Years Of New Orleans Piano
Below is an interview from 2016 with Jon Cleary from The Guardian:
Grammy winner Jon Cleary: ‘Music isn’t a choice for me – it’s a bodily function’ Guardian interview with Paul Oswell
At 18, the blues obsessive from Kent, England, headed to New Orleans with only the number of the Maple Leaf club. Last week, he won a roots music Grammy
Tue 23 Feb 2016 | Drinking tea in the sun on his balcony in the Bywater neighbourhood of New Orleans, Jon Cleary is jokingly lamenting having to leave the next day to play a concert at a school in chilly Minnesota. “I’m not sure what it is. I guess they’ll tell me when to start playing and tell me when to stop playing.”
The day before, Cleary had been in Los Angeles collecting a career-first Grammy award for his album Gogo Juice in the best regional roots category. “I felt like a spy in the house of the music business,” he says, smiling. “Like someone who had permeated the ranks and didn’t quite belong there.”
Cleary is upbeat but exudes the kind of reasonable practicality borne from the vicissitudes of a working musician’s life. It’s a niche act: a white Englishman from rural Kent championing New Orleans funk, a feat likened by one cynical review to a dog standing on its hind legs. That dog just won best in show.
Cleary’s musical education was diverse, but the jazz records that his uncle played him were the ones that took hold. “I’d go and see punk bands,” he says. “But I’d get home and listen to Professor Longhair. The punks played with that enthusiasm, the same as the jazzmen in New Orleans, busting out the same sweat, playing like their lives depended on it.”
Utterly seduced, the 18-year-old Cleary left England for New Orleans in 1980, equipped only with the telephone number of the Maple Leaf music venue. “A friend had a sister who worked there. I got a cab straight there from the airport and my first real steps on American soil were in the Maple Leaf. Earl King was playing.”
Odd jobs around the venue and sleeping on floor space were prosaic necessities for Cleary, who was “broke within two days” from buying records. A chance to practise piano before the day’s work and free entry to see the bands became a priceless perk.
“The bar manager would routinely shout at me to get off the piano and up a ladder to do some work. One night, the pianist didn’t show up for a gig. The manager ordered me to get off the ladder and start playing piano before the crowd started demanding refunds.” Obliging, Cleary made his paint-flecked debut on the New Orleans music scene.
Cleary threw himself headlong into performing, learning from his heroes and easing himself into accompanying them despite his outsider status. “If you could play and take care of business on stage, you’d get gigs,” he says. “I knew these songs. I’d practised them endlessly back home.”
Cleary lists the New Orleans masters that shaped his early musical life: Snooks Eaglin, Ernie K-Doe, Tommy Ridgley. “These were legendary names to me, but they didn’t care where I was from. The only discrimination that existed was if you could play or not.”
Cleary could play. Over the following decades he toured with such luminaries as Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal, as well as forming his own successful band, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
Cleary posing with his Grammy.
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Cleary posing with his Grammy. Photograph: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for NARAS
He is amused by the musical categorisation of the Grammy awards. “I guess I play R&B, but now that isn’t what it was historically. I love blues but I don’t have a blues band. Funk means something different. To categorise it is to short-change it. I have a ‘good music’ band that makes people want to dance. That should be the category.”
He agrees, though, that his music is roots, Gogo Juice competing with Hawaiian and Native American nominations. “The ethnic folk music of New Orleans is funk and jazz,” Cleary says. “Music was changed by what people did here a hundred years ago, and though it came from Africa and Europe, the musical petridish here produced something unique.”
At 53, Cleary is in his prime, and fully committed to a musical life. “Musicians don’t retire, you play until you drop dead,” he says, pausing for a mental genuflection to the recent passing of his friend Allen Toussaint. Toussaint’s horn arrangements on Gogo Juice were among the last works in his extraordinary musical career.
“Music isn’t a choice for me,” he says. “It’s a bodily function. It’s a struggle, and it might always be a struggle. If the Grammy means a tangible improvement in the economics of touring then that’s great, but often, you can’t make it work and you stay at home and play a gig down the road.”
Happily, staying at home in his beloved New Orleans is also an obvious pleasure for Cleary. “I’ll enjoy the spotlight while it lasts but I don’t take it too seriously, and if anyone wants to come and see this dog stand on his hind legs, they should do it quick.”