50 Years of Jazz Fest: Key Men

Dean Budnick on April 17, 2019
50 Years of Jazz Fest: Key Men

photo by Dino Perruci

Jon Cleary shares his perspective on some of New Orleans’ “Piano Professors.”

This article is part of our 50 Years of Jazz Fest celebration and appears in the special Collector’s Edition April/May 2019 issue of Relix. Subscribe here using code NOLA50 and get 20% off.

In 1980, Jon Cleary, then an 18-year-old British guitar player, traveled to New Orleans with the hope of absorbing the music and culture of the city. “I am from a little village in Kent. It seemed like a very exotic place to somebody growing up in a countryside farming community,” he recollects. “I arrived with $100 and without a plan, really. I look back and think, ‘What was I doing?’ I figured it would all fall into place and it did somehow. I arrived at night with the name and number of The Maple Leaf, and went straight there. The owner agreed to give me a job painting because I needed work. I wasn’t a particularly great house painter, but I did my best.

“By coincidence, the place that I moved into had a piano and a lot of what I heard just sunk in by osmosis. Then, one night at The Maple Leaf when I was wrapping up and cleaning all the paint off, James Booker didn’t show up to play his regular Tuesday night gig. They knew I played piano a little bit and asked me to get up on the stage and play something until Booker showed up, and he never did. So I just got up and kept playing the same songs over and over. That was my first actual piano gig. People seemed to dig it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Cleary has indeed done just that, delivering his own embodiment of the New Orleans tradition with John Scofield, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, B.B. King and many others, including his own Absolute Monster Gentlemen. His 2015 album, GoGo Juice, won the Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album. At the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest, he will be part of a special tribute to “The New Orleans Piano Professors.”

Let’s talk about some of the notable New Orleans piano players, starting with James Booker.

He was a regular fixture during my first couple of years in New Orleans. He’s revered now but, at the time, he would be lucky if he could sell 30 tickets. He was always friendly enough to me, but he was just completely nuts. He was a very eccentric alcoholic junkie, and you never quite knew what you were going to get depending on what cocktail he had ingested. When he played, sometimes it was awful and sometimes it was brilliant.

Booker was incredibly dexterous, had a very deep understanding of how music is put together and was really pushing the boundaries. James Booker and Mac Rebennack were the ones that stretched out the musical vocabulary—and Allen Toussaint, too, to some degree, but he was more concerned with writing and arranging and making records.

How about Professor Longhair?

Fess was very complicated rhythmically, and the thing that I really liked was the way he played piano as a percussion instrument. He’s interesting because there was nobody quite like him before, and nobody quite like him afterward. It’s rare to find musicians who have a style that is innate—that is not a combination of things that they have learned from different people. He was somebody who had a musical style of his own that was just born out of New Orleans. It’s 100-percent New Orleans.

If you’re interested in New Orleans piano and you want to get a start, you can find some very simple stuff by Professor Longhair that you can get a handle on very quickly. Then, when you get deeper into it, the percussive stuff gets pretty complicated.

You mentioned Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, earlier. What did he contribute to the canon?

Mac was a beautiful marriage of the best of Booker and the best of Fess. All these piano players are different, but Mac had a very gentle touch. He somehow managed to play that big stretch in the left hand, which is called a tenth, and the chords in between like Booker was so good at, despite the fact that he didn’t have hands as big as James Booker. To this day, it is a mystery to me.

When I was back in England for the first time after having been here for a couple of years, it was announced that he was coming out for a couple of gigs, and that was a big deal because he hadn’t played in England for 10 years. I ended up landing a gig playing guitar with him when he came over. Then, he heard me play piano at a session we did for the BBC and he asked if I would play some piano—because that would give him a chance to switch onto the guitar, which he liked to do. It was a thrill for me playing piano in Dr. John’s band. As a guitar player, I would get as close to the piano as I could and try to look over his shoulder just to see what he was doing. There were no instructional videos.

Allen Toussaint focused on his songwriting and production work. He didn’t seem to gig out too much until toward the end of his life.

He was fortunate he didn’t have to make a living from gigging. Fairly early on, he had a set of skills that were more valuable in the studio. So, he was concerned with the art of taking a song, assembling a bunch of musicians and coming out with a record.

Organizing musicians is like herding cats. He had a pretty strong disciplinarian streak, which he probably learned from Dave Bartholomew. He didn’t take any nonsense in the studio. It’s expensive to make a record, and New Orleans musicians are generally unreliable. They’re great at getting up onstage and entertaining people, but making records in a studio is an entirely different discipline. So, he didn’t really start touring until the end of his life, after Hurricane Katrina, when he found a new career as a performer.

Finally, what can you say about Fats Domino?

Fats Domino, along with Louis Armstrong, is arguably the most successful musician to have come out of New Orleans. He, in some respects, is quite a dexterous player. But most of what he did that worked on his records was very simple. Everyone loved him; he was a nice guy.

I got to know him a little at the end of his life. I would go to his house and play the piano at a time when he couldn’t really play anymore and he enjoyed hearing the piano being played.

He wasn’t the virtuoso pianist that Mac or James Booker were and he wasn’t a studio musician the same way Allen Toussaint was. However, he made lots of great pop songs and he had the personality, the charisma to push him outside the confines of the city of New Orleans.

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.