Jon Cleary remembers learning to play "Tipitina" on an old upright piano in his grandmother's home in the village of Cranbrook in Kent, England. He was 11. The song's three chords are filled with riffs between them like "little windows or doors you could open and peep in and there were all these opportunities you can mess with," he says.
In 1980, when he was 17, Cleary moved to New Orleans.
"I wanted to be right in the deep end," he says. "Once I was old enough and got school out the way, I came to New Orleans without a plan."
With rolled-up sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat tipped on the edge of his head, the piano player — in the tradition and footsteps of Professor Longhair and James Booker — still plays "Tipitina" at nearly every show.
"No one leaves any of my gigs with any doubt of the debt of gratitude I owe to New Orleans," he says. "You don't want to wave a flag for New Orleans like it's a brand or something. ... It doesn't matter whether you're playing to an old audience, a young audience, a hip audience, a square audience, to people in Asia or people in Europe, it just works. It makes people feel good. It's like medicine."
Cleary's acclaimed 2015 album GoGo Juice was awarded Best Regional Roots Music Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards. On April 19, he received the Big Easy Award for Entertainer of the Year and won Best Album of 2015.
"I want to make people understand this music comes from this little city 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the Mississippi River," he says. "Jazz, funk music — all this killing stuff is the folk music of New Orleans."
Cleary's mother collected New Orleans jazz records in post-war England, and his father was a semi-professional musician who came up in the skiffle scene. The Cleary household was full of New Orleans music — there were R&B and funk records from Allen Toussaint and bags full of 45s from Snooks Eaglin, Huey Smith and dozens of others — Cleary wore out a copy of Professor Longhair's "Big Chief."
Cleary's father taught him to play Lead Belly's "Midnight Special" on guitar, and three of his uncles often joined jam sessions in the living room.
"Even before I was big enough to get my hands around a guitar I was trying to join in and play along," he says. "I was pretty good — by the time I was 17 I'd already been playing for 12 years. When you're that young you don't have anything else to think about. I'd play until my fingers were literally bleeding."
He remembers the rest of the music world was "dreadful," he says, with plastic pop on Top of the Pops and nothing of interest on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which he'd plead with his parents to stay up and watch anyway. The only live music he could find was at punk rock shows. Reggae bands — English acts like Black Slate, Matumbi and Steel Pulse, or "all sorts of really hip bands" coming from Kingston, Jamaica, like The Gladiators or Culture — were the openers.
But Cleary often came back to his grandmother's piano, an instrument he says "engages you physically and mentally."
"I could become a twiddly-widdly rock guitar player, like Van Halen, pyrotechnic athletic type of speed," he says. "The other direction was jazz, and jazz guitar wasn't really interesting to me. I was big in funk. Piano is such a great funk instrument. It's a percussion instrument. ... When you start playing a musical instrument it's like being released into a brand new meadow you can romp around in, a big playing field. All of a sudden having this great musical palette at my fingertips was hugely appealing."
Seventeen years old, without a guitar in tow, Cleary stepped out of a taxi and into the Maple Leaf Bar. Earl King was playing. "For me, that was America," he says. "And it was f—g great.
"You could buy guns upstairs, wash your drawers downstairs, get your gin and tonic and listen to James Booker all at the same time," he says. "Just completely nuts, and I loved it. ... No one seemed to think it was anything unusual having James Booker singing and playing piano. ... It was music that happened there all the time, it was unremarkable. Of course it was completely remarkable to me, and it was interesting reconciling those two things."
Cleary calls his first two years in New Orleans his "finishing school for funk." He worked odd jobs, including a gig painting the Leaf, and thumbed through dozens of 45s at Jim Russell's Rare Records on Magazine Street. He pounded on a piano in his house for hours every day. When Booker didn't show for a gig at the Leaf, Cleary filled in.
"I think I've always had something of an outsider's appreciation of everything, the charms of New Orleans, perhaps lost on locals," he says. "At the same time I wanted to be on the inside, to become a New Orleanian. I loved the fact there was so much music around and nobody seemed to think it was a big deal."
Cleary returned to England, corralling other musicians, working the door, plugging in the PA, working in an uncle's band and hustling for solo gigs ("that was the best way to pay the rent," he says) — it didn't last long.
"Why on Earth am I living in England telling everyone else how great New Orleans is?" he remembers thinking. "I came back for Jazz Fest and then just didn't leave."
The city's piano legends were growing older, or dying, and few younger players picked up the mantle, but Cleary was among a handful of players who knew the old records. He took over Booker's Tuesday night slot at the Leaf after Booker died in 1983. Cleary also picked up Professor Longhair's longtime gig at Tipitina's. Cleary played alongside artists like Johnny Adams and Jessie Hill by a combination of luck and "by default," he says. Cleary — often with his longtime outfit the Absolute Monster Gentlemen — holds court at residencies throughout the city, from d.b.a. to Chickie Wah Wah and, of course, the Maple Leaf Bar.
"A lot of people showed me a lot of kindness," Cleary says. "If I had gone to Bourbon Street instead of Maple Leaf, who knows what would've happened. Music has occupied much of my waking hours. ... It's always been a labor of love. I've worked hard at it, and I've also been very lucky."
It culminates with GoGo Juice, which spans most of Cleary's journey from wide-eyed teenager to an embedded New Orleans artist — from the bouncing reggae spinning itself into barroom blues on album opener "Pump It Up" to the New Orleans love letter on "Bringing Back the Home." Cleary also adds '70s-flecked, organ-swirled soul on "Brother I'm Hungry" and late-night, between-the-sheets R&B on "Step into My Life." "9-5" could easily prop up a golden age hip-hop sample.
While his Absolute Monster Gentlemen are present, Cleary's resurrective funk and R&B get a big band blast of horns, arranged by Toussaint — among the artist's final works before his death in 2015. Toussaint's songs, Cleary says, were "well-thought out, clever, intelligent, witty, played with a lot of soul, and had that indefinable thing you know is New Orleans from a million miles away."
"What I admire most about Allen Toussaint, in a city of great musicians, he stood out with his ability to make a song, make a record," he says. "He set the bar pretty high for corralling the raw talent and refining the raw product into something that's a real class act."
JON CLEARY DURING JAZZ FEST
4 p.m. Wednesday, April 27
NOLA Crawfish Festival at NOLA Brewing Company MVP with Nigel Hall, Tony Hall, Raymond Weber and Derwin "Big D" Perkins
7 p.m. Thursday, April 28
d.b.a., 618 Frenchmen St.
11 p.m. Friday, April 29
Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St.
4 p.m. Saturday, April 30
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Blues Tent
11 p.m. Saturday, April 30
Maple Leaf Bar, 8316 Oak St.
2 a.m. Saturday, April 30 (late show)
"Southern Late Nights"
The New Mastersounds perform the Music of Allen Toussaint with Jon Cleary, Marc Broussard and The West Coast Horns
The Joy Theater, 1200 Canal St.