WASHINGTON – New Orleans piano men don't require advanced college degrees for fans to nickname them piano "professors."
"Professor" is a moniker that's been previously bestowed upon keyboard wizards Fats Domino, Dr. John, Henry Roeland Byrd aka "Professor Longhair," Art Neville and Allen Toussaint — all New Orleans piano giants.
They're given that title because their music is funky and original, adding spice to the unique gumbo that is New Orleans R & B.
And suddenly a new professor appears to have been awarded tenure — Jon Cleary, whose CD Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen outsold stiff competition at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in May. Critics are calling his sound a fresh Crescent City classic.
"It's not idle talk to call him 'professor.' No other New Orleans piano player has the same breadth and passion that Jon Cleary has right now," said Christopher Blagg of the New Orleans music monthly, Offbeat. "He uses all the vocabulary of the great New Orleans piano players and combines a fusion of paying tribute to the established sound while bringing in something totally new."
Cleary himself is a relative newcomer. Born in England, Cleary moved to New Orleans when he was 17 because he was fascinated by the music an uncle brought back from a visit to New Orleans.
"You couldn't find New Orleans records in England at that time," Cleary, 39, said in an interview while on tour in San Francisco. "So I had to move to New Orleans."
After living in the Big Easy for 22 years, Cleary has captured the soul of the city that inspires him. His songs don't reflect the city's touristy Bourbon Street T-shirt shops and striptease clubs, but rather the essence that locals enjoy — the po' boy shacks, the Uptown juke joints and sublime river breezes.
"Funk is the ethnic music of New Orleans, and there are a lot of talented musicians here in the church," Cleary said. "We've taken those genres and married it to strong music ideas and songwriting."
A sophisticated pen has led Cleary to write songs for others, among them blues superstars Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal. Currently, he's on tour with Raitt serving double duty: Cleary and the Gentlemen are the opening act, then Cleary plays with Raitt and her band. Several of the songs on Raitt's new CD Silver Lining are Cleary originals.
"Songwriting is what makes Jon Cleary special," said Blagg. "You hear his songs once and you can sing along right away — that's the sign of a well-written tune."
And Cleary seems to love songwriting as much as people love to hear his music.
"I really enjoy songwriting and hope to accomplish more with a break from touring," a road-worn Cleary said. "It's lovely to write a song and have somebody give it a new life of its own."
On his new CD, Cleary wrote most of the material, yet reworked "Just Kissed My Baby," a song written some 30 years ago by the fathers of New Orleans funk, the Meters. Cleary thought the song wouldn't be included on the CD but then spontaneous combustion occurred during the recording process, he said.
"It segued to another song and we kept adding little bits," Cleary said. "I thought we had turned the tape recorder off but we kept playing and it ended up being eight minutes long. It's one of those rare moments when the recorder is actually running when you hit some magic stuff."
And Meters drummer Joseph "Zig" Modeliste was happy to hear the tune revived.
"Zig called me and said, 'thanks for doing our song,'" Cleary said. "He was really pleased with what we did."
Words from a mentor mean a lot to Cleary, a longtime student who's become a "professor." He respects the music tradition that he's become a part of and likes to say that the music of his hometown is "more hipper" than any other city's indigenous sound.
"There are financial reasons to leave New Orleans for music towns like Los Angeles and Nashville," Cleary said. "But I play New Orleans music, so I will stay in New Orleans."