Musician Jon Cleary on finding 'the funkiest music I could’
By Mori Rothman
Read the full transcript below:
MORI ROTHMAN: Jon cleary plays New Orleans jazz and funk like a native son, but he’s from more than four thousand miles away. He left Kent, England, when he was 18-years old to pursue his musical dreams.
JON CLEARY: I’d always wanted to come to New Orleans and visit New Orleans. So I came here thinking I’d be here for a couple of weeks, and that was 30-something years ago. (laugh) I’m still here.
MORI ROTHMAN: His grandparents were performers, and his father played in a blues and folk band. Clearly listened to all kinds of music growing up, but as he learned to play the family piano, he fell in love with American jazz and blues.
MORI ROTHMAN: How does someone from England come to New Orleans and, you know, make a life out of this?
JON CLEARY: Well, I came here with no plan other than just to get to New Orleans and try to find the funkiest music I could.
MORI ROTHMAN: Cleary’s first job in New Orleans was painting and cleaning at a famed local bar, The Maple Leaf. One night, when the house piano player was late, Cleary got his first break: the owner asked him to fill in.
JON CLEARY: I played all the tunes I could play (laugh) and then played them all over again. Everyone seemed to dig ‘em.
MORI ROTHMAN: Cleary quickly ascended the New Orleans music scene and gained a reputation as a skilled pianist and arranger. He played regular club gigs and toured with legends like Allen Toussaint and Bonnie Raitt, who called her former keyboardist “the ninth wonder of the world”.
It was an on the job education, and Clearly credits the musicians he worked with for helping him develop his own sound.
JON CLEARY: That’s how the tradition continues. But it’s important that instead of just mimicking, that you try and to best of your ability, anyway, to do something that’s original.
MORI ROTHMAN: Clearly has recorded eight albums, and his latest, “Go Go Juice,” won this year’s Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Album.
The lyrics on the title track are directly from the people of New Orleans- consisting of slang Cleary heard while walking around the city.
JON CLEARY: If you’re interested in the music then you have to be something of a historian. And you have to have the ability to look back and amass as much of this as a richness that the generations that came before left us with.
MORI ROTHMAN: Cleary’s music has responded to the changes New Orleans has gone through during the 35 years he has lived in the city. In his composition “Bringing Back the Home,” he sings about the struggles after Hurricane Katrina.
JON CLEARY: Bringing Back the Home was written about the worry that a lot of people here had. That the very people who’d been displaced, and who increasingly look like they’re still not coming back, even after ten years.
This town has a quite a sad history in many ways. And they’d be justified in singing the blues. But they don’t sing the blues in New Orleans, they make a joyful sound.