Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen

Jon Cleary was born in London in 1962… not the first line you expect in a bio about a New Orleans piano great, is it? Not only that, but he’s a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, arranger and producer, as well. Guitar was his first love, starting in England at age 5, moving on to performing at 11 and graduating to working as a musician at 14. At age 16 he formed ‘Delta Wing’ with renowned blues slide guitarist Roger Hubbard (of whom Muddy Waters said in 1972: 'Roger Hubbard is as good as any blues guitarist in the UK or the United States’.) This would be the first of his many brushes with greatness.

As a teen Cleary grew increasingly interested in funk-infused music and discovered that three such songs that he particularly admired – LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Robert Palmer’s version of “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” and Frankie Miller’s rendition of “Brickyard Blues” – were attributed to Allen Toussaint as either the songwriter, the producer, or both. Cleary’s knowledge of Toussaint’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.

The match was struck. 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. Cleary first worked at the Maple Leaf as a painter, but soon graduated to playing piano – the instrument for which he is known today. His mastery of the New Orleans style landed him gigs playing as a session musician in the bands of local legends Earl King, Johnny Adams, Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington, Snooks Eaglin, Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill and as a guitarist for Mac Rebennack (Dr John).

1989 saw the release of Cleary’s first album, Alligator Lips & Dirty Rice. It was also the year he moved briefly to New York and landed the job of providing the backing band for visiting New Orleans artists at leading NY venue, ‘Tramps’. In New York he was able to study Afro Cuban music and, after a temporary move back to London, started traveling regularly to Havana and Santiago in the early 90’s.

Soon after, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards introduced Cleary to musician/record producer John Porter who then hired him to write, record and tour with Taj Mahal – who covered four of Cleary’s compositions. When Porter secured a record deal for Cleary with Virgin, Cleary invested the advance money on recording equipment and set up a studio in New Orleans where he recorded Moonburn, and then two further records for Basin Street Records. He called the studio, aptly, “Funk Headquarters”.

Later on in Los Angeles, performing with BB King, Cleary was asked by Bonnie Raitt to join her new band in which he played keyboards, percussion and guitar. Cleary stayed for a decade, Raitt cut five of Cleary’s songs, and all the while, Cleary juggled his own career touring around the world with his celebrated band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

In 2016, Cleary released Go Go Juice to critical acclaim. It went on to earn him his first GRAMMY. Later on he partnered with guitarist John Scofield for a number of tours worldwide. Cleary also appeared in Martin Scorcese’s documentary “Red, White & Blue”, accompanying Jeff Beck, Tom Jones and Van Morrison at Abbey Road Studios in London.

His dizzying career has included on-stage performances and studio recordings with a veritable who’s who of the business; Rufus Thomas, John Lee Hooker, D’Angelo, Heavy D, Eric Clapton, Keb-Mo, Ryan Adams, Levon Helm, Zigaboo Modeliste, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, Brian May, Robert Plant (Cleary’s one and only gig as a drummer!), Warren Storm, Bobby Charles, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, Walter Trout, Norbert Scrod, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Henry Butler, Charles Brown, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Junior Wells, Irma Thomas… and the list goes on and on.

In addition to his aforementioned GRAMMY, Cleary has spent the last 20 years consistently winning New Orleans music awards including Best Piano/Keyboard Player, Best Louisiana Artist and Record of the Year from OffBeat, as well as several Gambit New Orleans ‘Best Of”’s. In 2017 he was presented with the prestigious Ascona Jazz award. In 2020 he was named the “Best International Blues Act” by UK tastemaker JazzFM.

Today, the music continues. Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen tour all over the world on an almost never ending basis, while maintaining a robust local schedule in New Orleans. In addition, Cleary’s solo piano performances remain a fan favorite at venues like Chickie Wah Wah and the Saturn Bar.

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