A Brit’s Deep Slice of New Orleans

Grammy winner Jon Cleary recounts his journey to and through The Crescent City

Growing up in a small village in England, Jon Cleary made a b-line for New Orleans the minute he hit adulthood.

The 56-year-old Grammy Award winner took up the guitar when he was a small child, but added the piano – and New Orleans piano-playing sensibilities – to his repertoire when he initially moved to The Big Easy as a teenager.

“Everyone in my family, if they weren’t musicians, they were music lovers,” Cleary says. “They’d always turn up with bags of records. My grandma’s generation was the ‘30s and ‘40s – the Fats Waller era. My dad’s was Lead Belly blues. My mom loves New Orleans jazz. One of my uncles was into blues and gospel. That kind of stuff was always around. The men in my family all played musical instruments for as long as I can remember. My uncle lived in New Orleans for a few years in the early 70s. He brought hundreds and hundreds of 45s. I’d stay with him and soak it up like a sponge.”

After working a job moving sheet rock and saving enough money for the trip, Cleary set foot in NOLA himself. He hadn’t planned on staying for more than a few weeks and certainly didn’t envision a successful musical career taking shape. But he landed a room in an old house next to the Mississippi River (equipped with a piano) and a slapdash (not musical) job at the iconic Maple Leaf Bar and it all came to gather serendipitously.

“I was a scruffy 18-year-old who could play four or five tunes. Me and a mate from school started digging up banana trees for work and the guy who owned the bar asked if I needed a job. He said, ‘the bar needs a paint job. Do you know how to paint?’ We said yeah. We had never painted in our lives. It took us six months to paint the bar. We got to see all of the bands for free. We’d show up and I’d sit and play the piano. When my boss came in, he’d shout at us that we were supposed to be painting. For hours every day I played the old piano in the house I was living in. It was my university of funk. I spent most of my time just listening and learning.”

One of the Maple Leaf’s regular acts was R & B keyboard king James Booker. One night Booker was in no condition to perform and Cleary was asked to sit in. It marked his first public performance. He was hooked.

“I was getting to play with the guys I’d pay to go see – Jessie Hill, Earl King … These were the legends still playing,” Cleary says.

It wasn’t long before Cleary’s own talents as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer joined NOLA’s legendary ranks. He went on to share the stage with everyone from B.B. King to Eric Burdon and write compositions for Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and John Scofield. He’s recorded eight albums, 2016’s Go-Go Juice winning a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album. For the last 20 years, he’s traveled the world delivering the spirit of New Orleans with his own distinctive stamp.

“There’s nowhere like New Orleans,” he says. “The spirit, it’s an intangible thing. Music is synonymous with New Orleans. Everything about this place screams good music. For over a century, they’ve been honing it down and getting it right. The ethnic folk music of New Orleans – R & B, jazz and funk – it’s so good it’s been taken and used as a template for all music across the world.”

Those decades of honing have led to a New Orleans musical tradition that is boundless, running an endless gamut of styles and sounds. When asked to describe what sets the approach to piano apart, Cleary said it’s something that can’t necessarily be put to words.

“The beauty of music is it transcends the limitations of language,” he says. “I suppose one thing is that the piano style is percussive. When you hit a piano key, it can be played in a percussive way. It’s strong when you’re part of the rhythm section, but it’s a chord instrument, too, so you’re dealing with the harmonic structure, the grace notes, the slurred notes. They are carefully played and selected, so it’s also subtle, something that tickles the ear. It’s sparkly. The big thing is that it’s medicine. It makes people feel good.”

Jon Cleary’s Tribute to the New Orleans Piano Tradition

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 31

Jon Cleary takes audiences through the history of New Orleans piano, highlighting icons such as Henry Butler, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint in a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 31. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30. Tickets are $40. Get first set tickets HERE. Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. Get second set tickets HERE.  Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.


Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Aug. 1

Cleary’s lively piano and vocals-driven New Orleans tribute show hits the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets HERE.


For more information, call 970-479-6146.

Howard Stone: New Orleans Piano

If you were to ask most jazz fans what instrument most epitomizes New Orleans jazz, the trumpet would most likely be the answer. Actually, it should be the cornet, which Louis Armstrong and other early New Orleans jazzmen initially played, switching to the trumpet later. Another answer might be the trombone, most famously played in the “tailgating” style by Edward “Kid” Ory, who played with Satchmo (Armstrong). So, while it was brass instruments in The Big Easy around the turn of the 20th century that were initially associated with the new sound that became known as jazz, the clarinet also arrived on the scene and played a prominent role in early “Dixieland” jazz. However, by mid-century, it was the piano players of The Crescent City that had birthed a new style of music: rhythm and blues, or as it became known, R & B.

Howard Stone. (above: Jelly Roll Morton).

But I have gotten ahead of my story and must return to the 19th and early 20th century for some important details. At that time, New Orleans was a major port city and as such, received countless immigrants and visitors from places like Cuba, the Caribbean and South America. Many of the new arrivals brought with them their musical traditions and over time, their musical ingredients were added to the jazz recipe, creating a new musical multi-culturalism that furthered the jazz tradition. This is where the piano players of New Orleans took over.

It all started with the legendary Creole piano man Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe), who in 1902 at the age of 12, began playing piano in the bordellos of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans. While Jelly Roll claimed to have invented jazz (something that no one person can take credit for), he did move the music forward by fusing ragtime with the blues and added elements of the habanera from Cuba and the tango from Argentina. His extraordinary talent and new approach to the music elevated the piano to a position where it could vie for attention in a music that had up to then been dominated by brass bands, which even today remain an important part of the New Orleans jazz tradition.

What Jelly Roll set in motion ultimately lead to an approach whereby jazz pianists melded Caribbean and Latin American musical idioms that previously had not been combined with jazz or the blues. Subsequent New Orleans piano players continued this approach. Over the last 100 years, giants like Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd, Champion Jack Dupree, James Carrol Booker III, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Allen Toussaint, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and Henry Butler created a music that can best be described as “New Orleans piano.”

While each of these piano titans had his own unique style, at the heart was a thumping bass line played with the left hand while a rollicking right hand played melodic lines. It is much like boogie-woogie and stride piano, except you can feel the rhythms of the habanera and rumba from Cuba, the Caribbean calypso beats and the hypnotic pulse of the tango from Argentina, all combined with jazz in a captivating way.

As mentioned above, one of the greats of New Orleans piano was Henry Butler. When Henry’s home in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina in 2005, he took up residence in Colorado and performed on a number of occasions at the Vail Jazz Festival over the ensuing years, the last of which was in 2017. Tragically, Henry passed last year. To pay homage to him and many of the other greats of New Orleans piano, Vail Jazz will present Jon Cleary and his trio in a multi-media tribute to Henry and the other legendary piano men of New Orleans on July 31 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and Aug. 1 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here). Jon is a master of all the styles of New Orleans piano and will also share classic videos and tip his hat to some of NOLA’s legendary players.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.