Jon Cleary, Saturday and Sunday, Carney's Main Room

The Story

The funkiest Brit you’ll ever meet, pianist-singer-songwriter Jon Cleary embodies the tradition of the great New Orleans piano professors like Professor Longhair, Dr. John, James Booker and Allen Toussaint, combining Fess’ rhumba-boogie, rhythm and blues, ‘70s soul and slamming funk with Afro-Cuban elements. “When I speak, I speak with an English accent,” he explains. “When I play music, my accent is 100% New Orleans.” 

A respected sideman for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Maria Muldaur, Taj Mahal and John Scofield, Cleary was born and raised in rural Cranbrook in Kent, England, though the Crescent City has been his adopted home since moving there in 1980. “I grew up like a sponge absorbing New Orleans music, so it informs everything I do,” Cleary explains. “I’m a student of it and a fan, first and foremost. And I make a point of trying to keep the fast-disappearing tradition of the R&B pianist-singer alive by playing the old songs that are in danger of being forgotten.” At the same time, he has built an impressive body of work as a prolific songwriter, drawing on the inspiration of his funky forefathers on albums like 1999’s Moonburn, 2004’s Pin Your Spin, 2015’s GoGo Juice and 2018’s Dyna-Mite.

An accomplished guitarist as well as keyboardist, the multi-faceted roots musician made the move to the Big Easy at age 18, slowly making a name for himself playing local gigs at clubs like the Maple Leaf, Tipitinas and the Old Absinthe House bar. Cleary later went out on the road with drummer Kenneth Blevins and original Meters bassist George Porter, Jr. while backing up New Orleans legends like Snooks Eaglin, Marva Wright, Earl King, Jessie Hill and Ernie K-Doe at gigs around the Crescent City.. He performed regularly with singer Johnny Adams and guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington at the famed New Orleans late night hangout Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge and recorded two albums with Johnny and Walter for Rounder Records in the late 1980s. He recorded his first album, Alligator Lips & Dirty Rice, in 1994 and shortly thereafter formed his touring band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. In 2010, Cleary was part of the cast of the short-lived HBO series Treme. Like most musicians on the show, he played himself. Cleary’s next album, 2012’s Occapella!, was a tribute to New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint, providing a showcase for his vocals as much as his celebrated piano playing. Cleary comes to the Exit Zero Jazz Festival with his trio, and a whole lot of music in his trick bag.

The Sound

A dedicated keeper of the flame, Cleary is carrying on the party-time tradition of Crescent City piano masters like Professor Longhair, James Booker and Allen Toussaint. Expect to hear rowdy New Orleans party fare like “Dyna-Mite,” “Go to the Mardi Gras,” “People Say” and “Tipitina” and Toussaint staples like “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky,” “Fortune Teller”  and “Southern Nights” mixed with infectious Cleary originals like “DyGetcha GoGo Juice,” “Mo Hippa,” “Boneyard,” “Zulu Strut” and “Hit, Git, Quit, Split.” And get ready to strut your stuff on the dance floor.

Michael Kline