Jon Clearyâ€™s love and affinity for New Orleans music goes back to the rural British village of Cranbrook, Kent, where he was raised in a musical family. Â Clearyâ€™s maternal grandparents performed in London in the 1940s, under the respective stage names Sweet Dolly Daydream and Frank Neville, The Little Fellow With The Educated Feet Â â€“ she as a singer, and he as a crooner and tap dancer.
As a teen Cleary grew increasingly interested in funk-infused music and discovered that three such songs that he particularly admired â€“ LaBelleâ€™s â€œLady Marmalade,â€ Robert Palmerâ€™s version of â€œSneakinâ€™ Sally Through the Alley,â€ and Frankie Millerâ€™s rendition of â€œBrickyard Bluesâ€ Â â€“ were attributed to Allen Toussaint as either the songwriter, the producer, or both. Clearyâ€™s knowledge of Toussaintâ€™s work expanded significantly when his uncle returned home to the U.K., after a two-year sojourn in New Orleans, with a copy of a Toussaint LP and two suitcases full of New Orleans R&B 45s.
In 1981 Cleary flew to New Orleans for an initial pilgrimage and took a cab straight from the airport to the Maple Leaf Bar, a storied venue which then featured such great blues-rooted eclectic pianists as Roosevelt Sykes and James Booker. Â Cleary first worked at the Maple Leaf as a painter, but soon graduated to playing piano there â€“ even though his first instrument was the guitar, which he still plays and has recently reintroduced into his live performances.
As word of Clearyâ€™s burgeoning talent began to spread around town, he was hired by such New Orleans R&B legends as Snooks Eaglin, Earl â€œTrick Bagâ€ King, Johnny Adams, and Jessie â€œOoh Poo Pah Dooâ€ Hill, while also gaining the respect of the great Crescent City pianists Dr. John and the late Allen Toussaint. Years later, in 2012, Cleary recorded a critically acclaimed album of all-Toussaint songs entitled Occapella.
Today, Clearyâ€™s work pays obvious homage to the classic Crescent City keyboard repertoire created by such icons as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Dr. John, and James Booker â€“ while also using it as a launching pad for a style that incorporates such other diverse influences as â€™70s soul and R&B, gospel music, funk, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Cuban rhythms, and much more.
Deciding to stay in New Orleans, Cleary recorded his first album of nine, to date, in 1989. Â His ever-elevating profile led to global touring work in the bands of Taj Mahal, John Scofield, Dr. John, and Bonnie Raitt. Â Cleary has led his own group, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, for over two decades now, but he still collaborates frequently with these old friends. Â At the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, for instance, Cleary performed alongside Raitt in a heartfelt tribute to Fats Domino.