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Jon Cleary: New Orleans Funk Via England

It’s really hard to believe the first sentence of Wikipedia’s profile of Jon Cleary. It says he was born in Kent, England. But it’s Wikipedia, and so it is the truth. No fake news there.

Cleary sounds and feels like he is pure New Orleans, which to many people is as great a lineage as being English. Being linked to Dr. John, Louis Armstrong and Professor Longhair is to many as great as being so connected to Winston Churchill, Shakespeare and Bertrand Russell as antecedents.

Jon Cleary

But it is a hard sell listening to Cleary. Check out “Just Kissed My Baby” (above) and “Tipitina” (below) which is a classic written by Professor Longhair. Cleary, according to the profile, has spent much of his life in The Big Easy. He’s recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, B.B. King and written songs that have been recorded by an overlapping and equally impressive list.

The bio at Cleary’s site says that he has been working the music scene of the city for 35 years and describes him as a peer of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. Indeed, the profile says that Toussaint arranged the horns for Cleary’s latest album, GoGo Juice.

Most of the profile at Cleary’s site, quite naturally, focuses on the new album. The ending section talks about Cleary’s upbringing in England. His maternal grandparents performed under the great names “Sweet Dolly Daydream” and “The Little Fellow with the Educated Feet.” His dad played skiffle.

The pivotal moment:

As soon as he was old enough to leave school in 1980 Cleary took off for the Crescent City. When his flight touched down a taxi took him straight to the Maple Leaf, a funky Uptown bar which then featured such New Orleans piano legends as Roosevelt Sykes and James Booker. Cleary got a job painting the club, and lived a few doors down for a time, allowing him unlimited free access to all the great New Orleans music performed within. One night when James Booker didn’t show up, the club’s manager insisted that Jon get up and play before the paying customers demanded a refund. Thrust suddenly into the spotlight Jon was ready, willing and able to play his first paying gig in New Orleans – and although he had come to town as a guitarist, this debut was also the first step of his career as a pianist.

Perhaps no city in the world has produced as much music as New Orleans. The Daily Music Break has featured many of these great musicians. Some, such as Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino are legends. Some, such as Champion Jack Dupree, Earl Palmer, Red Allen and Marcia Ball, are lesser known but great musicians as well. They usually have interesting personas.

The list is more or less endless, with the focal points being trumpet and piano. American music simply would not be the same without New Orleans.

Hugh Laurie – the Englishman who played the title character on the great television series “House” – also can completely repress his English accent. It’s interesting that he is deeply drawn to the music of New Orleans as well.