There are few things more intimidating than opening a door and facing the giant bulk of Derwin “Big D” Perkins. I find myself contemplating this reality as I enter the artist trailer behind the Sprint PCS Stage at Jazz Fest to meet up with Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
Anxiety melts almost immediately as Big D flashes a warm smile and shakes my dwarfed hand, making his way around the cramped backstage quarters. The atmosphere is what one would expect from a band that has been touring relentlessly, having just driven umpteen hours in a van straight to the Fair Grounds for their Fest performance.
They are running on empty. Jon Cleary, pianist and bandleader, goes over the set list with the band. Mark Samuels, the owner of Basin Street records, arrives to greet newest additions to his label, bringing along Absolute Monster Gentlemen t-shirts, which he proceeds to pass out to the group.
Bassist Cornell Williams holds on to the shirt and stops dead in his tracks. “Mark, I hope you brought a 6X for my boy here [nodding to Big D]. I’m not gonna stand for no prejudice.” A moment of silence ensues. Suddenly, the room explodes into fits of laughter, and ribbing and inside jokes continue all the way to the stage, and when the first notes hit, all fatigue and weariness are washed away, leaving contentment born out of pure musical joy.
This seems to be the main ingredient to the success of this monsterly successful funk/soul quartet. They live to play music.
AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW ORLEANS
Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen are an odd pairing of personalities and backgrounds. How did a British expatriate get mixed up with a New Orleans gospel group in the first place? To answer this, the histories of each must be explored. In the charming sun-lit courtyard of his French Quarter apartment, Jon Cleary divulged his storied musical career over multiple glasses of chilled Cuban rum, which in true Gentlemen fashion, he generously shared.
A Londoner by birth, Jon’s family moved to the countryside when he was little, growing up in a small village in the south of England. His family was a musical one including a grandmother who sang professionally in the 1940s (owning the remarkable stage name, Sweet Dolly Daydream); a tap-dancing grandfather named Frank Neville (stage name, no relation to Art or Aaron), billed as “the little fellow with the educated feet;” a dad who was a guitarist in a skiffle band, and a mother with a passion for New Orleans jazz.
It was to no one’s surprise that Jon himself got interested at a young age and was bought his first guitar at the age of five. “When I was about five, my dad bought me a scaled-down nylon string guitar that I took with me everywhere. I’d walk to school with it, fall to sleep in bed with it…it was with me 24 hours a day.” He got his first gig at a “real den of iniquity” as Jon puts it, playing guitar in a place called the Duke of York when he was 14-years-old.
Early attempts at the piano did not last too long. “I took a couple of piano lessons at school, but I would just memorize the pieces…I got in trouble when they realized I wasn’t turning the pages of the score so they said ‘You’re wasting your time here’.” It was an uncle who first gave him a taste of New Orleans.
Visiting his uncle, who had lived in the French Quarter for a time, he would sit down with him and listen to dozens of 45s by artists like Snooks Eaglin, Clifton Chenier, and Professor Longhair.
“The stories he told [of New Orleans] seemed magical. This was way before New Orleans was hip and fashionable. Most of this stuff was inaccessible to us in England.”
Those mythical stories of the Crescent City became reality when at 17, he crossed the Atlantic to spend two years in New Orleans. “My first two years here I spent listening. 1 didn’t try to get any gigs, although sometimes I would be asked to fill in for James Booker at the Maple Leaf.” Cleary’s long association with the Maple Leaf (now considered the band’s home base) began as soon as he entered the city, as a taxi dropped him off from the airport to the club he had heard so much about as a youngster.
“Earl King was playing when I got there. I couldn’t believe it.” He got a job painting the Maple Leaf in exchange for music, beer and very little pay. The house he was staying in had an old piano, so he’d get home covered in paint and bang on the keys for four or five hours every night. When he returned to England he started up a New Orleans-inspired R&B band that did fairly well in London.
It was then that he got a chance to play guitar and piano for Dr. John during Mr. Mac’s extended stays in Britain. But after two years, he returned to New Orleans. Playing a New Orleans-styled band in England was okay, but it’s no real substitute for the real thing.
Upon his return, Cleary began hustling and gigging like a man on a mission. He played solo piano on Monday nights at Tipitina’s (Longhair’s old spot), and Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf (Booker had passed away while he was in England).
A key moment in the young pianist’s career occurred when guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington spotted Cleary at a Mighty Sam McLain gig at Benny’s Bar. Walter immediately asked Cleary to join his band, which included the legendary Johnny Adams on vocals, opening an entire world for the relatively green Englishman.
They had a regular gig at the infamous Dorothy’s Medallion Lounge and toured southwestern Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. “We’d all pile into a station wagon and drive out to these little black clubs, beating up on old pianos where half the keys didn’t work…I was in heaven.” Wolfman became Cleary’s roadhouse tutor.
“Walter was a real teacher to me…he was a phenomenal rhythm player, still is. He’s such a good friend, a brother, really.”
Soon, Cleary was fronting his own band, which would be comprised of any number of local standouts on any given night including George Porter, Walter Washington, Kenneth Blevins, Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton and others.
“I had a different band at every gig, but I’d get the best musicians in the city. I was a bit cheeky, I suppose, ringing up some of these people [since he was relatively unknown at the time], but the gigs were good and everyone had a lot of fun. Even the best musicians still have to pay the rent.”
Soon enough, Jon Cleary was one of the most sought-after sidemen in New Orleans, playing regularly with the musicians he’d listened to back in England on his uncle’s old 45s. He was living the dream.
Being on the cover of a magazine that will be seen by thousands of people could make anyone a little anxious, so when Cornell Williams, Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander and Big D showed up at Cleary’s apartment for the photo shoot, it was understandable that they seemed a little nervous.
When Jon started tinkling some tunes on the piano, all three perked up, and soon the cameras were forgotten and an impromptu harmonizing doo-wop workout ensued. I only assumed that after months of touring and finally having a break, that music-making would be last on their minds, but these three are of a different breed. They eat, sleep and breathe music. It comes out of their pores, and shows in their syncopated gait.
The origin of this monster trio stem from two unlikely locales: the church, and Bourbon Street. Drummer Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander had been playing on Bourbon for over ten years when he met up with Cornell and Big D, who were the youngest members of a hot gospel act, the Friendly Travelers. Jellybean had cut his teeth on Bourbon playing in R&B cover bands like P.T.C. (Posin’ Til Closin’) at the 544 Club.
While never benefiting from formal training, he always had an uncanny sense of rhythm. “I came out of the womb bangin’, but I don’t come from a technical side, it’s more of a heart-felt thing for me. Some people be like ‘His technique’s not the greatest, but I can really feel him on stage.’ It’s all about the feel for me.” Modesty aside, Jellybean, who resides with his wife and three kids in LaPlace, has carved out quite a name for himself as one of the most in-demand drummers in a city where drum talent abounds.
The Gentlemen’s sweet-singing bass player, Cornell Williams, was forced to get creative when trying to nurture his love of the bass. “When I first started out, I had an electric lead guitar that had been given to me by my uncle. I took the E strings off, and I would tune the four remaining strings a whole octave lower to get a bass sound. In fact, my very first gig I used that guitar.”
When his mother, a talented organist for several regional churches, saw how much her son wanted a real bass guitar, she promised him one if he would bring home a decent report card. Sure enough, when he ran home with the report card she had the bass sitting right there waiting for him. Because of his mother’s profession, Cornell did most of his playing in church, where he met up with his future bandmate, Big D.
Derwin “Big D” Perkins came from a musical family as well. His Mother actually sang back-up for R&B standout Jean Knight, and also dabbled in songwriting. It was the church where Big D started his music career. As he got older, he started performing in more secular realms to show his skills, including a stint with Bourbon Street fixture Gary Brown, and session work with local artists like Rockin’ Dopsie, and international hip-hop artists like Juvenile, Choppa, and Master P. Despite the more high profile Bourbon Street gigs and hip-hop session work, it was the gospel gigs that got him noticed.
Anyone who watches Big D, Cornell and Jellybean perform comes away impressed by their extremely tight, but undoubtedly funky style. There’s not a wasted note among them. As Big D modestly notes, “We ain’t no extraordinary musicians one on one, but as a team, we make it happen.”
The Gentlemen deflect most of the credit to church and their spirituality. During shows you will often see Cornell flashing his pinky, index finger and his thumb when the band starts to really heat up. Cornell explains, “When I do this here [hand signal] during gigs, it’s to represent the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. I like to show that the Lord definitely comes first.”
Big D, always quick with a joke, responds “Yeah, we put God first, but that means we got some other stuff that come after. We still human.” Joking aside, it was putting God first in the Friendly Travelers that started turning people’s heads. The Friendly Travelers were a small gospel combo that gained a following for its decidedly non-traditional styles and unconventional performances.
Big D explains, “We played a style that was pretty funky, but clean. Now structure? Man, if you played one note out of the pocket, everybody’d look at you. That was structure!” They would rehearse every day. The whole band would stay together, meeting up at night to rehearse informally more before calling it a night. The borderline fascist rehearsal schedule paid off, as the Friendly Travelers became one of the hottest acts in the city for a time.
As an outsider, Jellybean testified to the group’s abilities. “The first time I saw the Friendly Travelers my jaw dropped to the floor. I couldn’t believe it.” As it turns out, a certain piano-playing Englishman couldn’t either.
AN UNLIKELY PAIRING
Jon Cleary had the ability to get virtually anyone he wanted on a given night to perform, but he wanted a full time band that could rehearse and grow together musically.
Biking home from a studio session one night, he heard the sanctified sounds of his future band mates. “My intention was to go straight home, but when I passed Cafe Brasil [which had just opened] I had to stop. The music was too good. I sat there in awe of this band, and to this day I still think they’re one of my favorite bands I’ve ever seen in the city It was the Friendly Travelers.”
He kept going to see this band every Sunday at Cafe Brasil, eventually sitting in with them occasionally. Cleary describes his first experience sitting in with them with nostalgic tones, “There was an empty keyboard one night, so I was invited up to play; I think Cornell and D really dug it. I believe they identified a fellow spirit musically.”
Soon after, Cleary actually moved to New York City, but still remained in touch with Big D and Cornell. The Crescent City pulled him back after a brief hiatus, and when Jazz Fest called asking for a performance, Cleary knew who he wanted to call for his band. “So I called up the fellas, and asked them if they wanted to play my Jazz Fest gig, warning them that it would take a lot of rehearsal because I had a bunch of new original songs I wanted to try out.
Their response was like ‘What took you so bloody long [I can’t imagine Big D or Cornell using the adverb bloody, so it’s safe to assume this was added by Mr. Cleary)? We’d been waiting for years for this call. Of course we’ll do it.'” All they needed now was a drummer.
Big D and Cornell used to go check out the R&B band P.T.C. at Club 544 on Bourbon. Jellybean was the drummer and would always see the pair at their gigs. “These guys [Cornell and Big D] would come every night. They came for the bass player and the guitarist, who were giving them some lessons.
Big D sat in one time on George Benson’s ‘Affirmation’ and I was like ‘Who’s teaching who?’ They were great players. We clicked right there. Cornell has the gift of gab and convinced me to meet Jon Cleary.”
Because Jellybean was so busy with his multiple gigs on Bourbon and session work, D and Cornell weren’t sure he’d make the cut since Jon had set up a rigorous rehearsal schedule. But he showed up at every one and eventually got the job. Several additional musicians also were involved in the fetal stages of the band, including Iguanas saxophonist Joe Cabral, and the late great percussionist Michael Ward.
Soon enough, the band streamlined to what we see today. All that remained was a name for their band. One night at a Johnny “Guitar” Watson show it all came together.
Cornell remembers, “Johnny [Watson] had introduced his bass player to the crowd as an absolute monster gentleman, and Cleary and I looked at each other simultaneously and said ‘That’s the name!’” It seemed a perfect match. The Gentlemen finally had large exposure and great original material to work with, while Cleary got to surround himself with a real full-time working band whose musicianship floored him.
“The guys were young and hungry, perfectly willing to take time to rehearse and perfect our sound,” says Cleary. The debut of the new band at the 1994 Jazz Fest went fairly smoothly, but it was later on that night, at the Maple Leaf, where the band was truly born. Says Cleary, “We had to go from a 40-minute set at the Fair Grounds to a four-hour set at the Maple Leaf, and the guys stepped up to the plate and delivered. There was maybe a handful of people at the gig, but the people who were there saw a damn good show. We still talk about that night to this day. It is by that gig that we judge all the others.”
The euphoria of that night didn’t last for long, however. In all of the excitement, it seems Jon had forgotten he was an Englishman.
ENGLISHMAN IN EXILE
Soon after forming the band, Jon was escorted out of the country for immigration problems. It was always a source of anxiety for Jon, never knowing what was going to happen to him as an illegal alien.
As Cleary notes, “You can’t get a work permit to be a funk musician in New Orleans. Those categories simply don’t exist.” Not knowing if he was ever coming back, Cleary went to his parents’ home in southern England, and took stock of his situation. “I could do two things: get in the doldrums and feel sorry for myself, or get busy working.”
Thankfully, Cleary decided on the latter, and it is during this period that his songwriting took off. He made a deal with a fellow nearby who had converted an old 16th-century barn to a studio. For every song of this man’s he worked on, he got to lay down one of his own. Because there were no time constraints, his songwriting and creative muse blossomed. Cleary sent some of these tapes to producer John Porter who subsequently gave them to Taj Mahal.
Mahal was ecstatic about the songs and arranged to have Jon join them on his new record and tour. A temporary work visa was granted and Jon was back in the States in no time. After the tour, Cleary eventually made it back to the States where he was reunited with Cornell, Big D and Jellybean.
Soon after, he got a record deal with Virgin Records and recorded Moonburn almost entirely by himself. Because of budget restraints, and the Gentlemen’s unfamiliarity with the new tunes, Cleary decided to wait until the band had gelled again to cut a record entirely with the Gentlemen. It was a different record than people expected, including large doses of soul and funk. Though critically lauded, it didn’t sell well, largely due to the record company’s lack of promotion and publicity.
Despite the record’s disappointing sales, Cleary and the Gentlemen proceeded to bum up the local club scene, creating a buzz as the city’s hottest live act. Their reputation began to grow.
Last year, having difficulty getting a record deal to record an album to showcase the band as a whole, Cleary and the Gentlemen decided to cut a record independently and let the chips fall as they may.
They wanted to somehow capture their infectious and smoldering live sound, but in a studio environment. As Cleary states, “We wanted to play as naturally as possible, so to recreate the fun we have when playing live.” The songs they recorded have almost all been live staples for the past year or so making the studio sessions similar to a live gig.
Jon believes the cover of the Meters’ classic “Just Kissed My Baby” best captures the band’s sound. What was originally a three-minute song was extended as the engineer kept recording while the band continued to play, none the wiser. “The secret of the band is a delicate balance between carefully orchestrated and arranged parts, and the ability for anyone in the band to go off on a tangent at any moment…We’ll switch the beats up or I’ll call out a key change randomly… and that’s what happened on that track. We’re constantly teetering on the brink between genius and complete disaster, and it’s always genius. The way these guys play is amazing.”
With Basin Street Records picking up the band and the album, Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, which was released during Jazz Fest, the disc already exceeded the sales of Moonburn. The band is optimistic that all the sacrifices they’ve made in the past are finally starting to bear fruit. As the opening band for Bonnie Raitt’s national tour, they are getting some premium national exposure to a wider audience.
There have even been occasions of the band outselling Ms. Raitt herself at the merchandising booths.
IT’S All ABOUT THE SONG
One of the biggest reasons for the band’s success is the strength of Cleary’s songwriting. There are plenty of bands that can lock in on a groove or produce hair-raising solos, but the city hasn’t seen a truly gifted songwriter in a while.
‘The material that has come out of New Orleans had always been strong, but that seems to have fallen to the wayside,” says Cleary, “Something went a bit haywire in the mid- ’70s and we haven’t quite recovered.” His goal is to present strong new material that is firmly rooted in a tradition, without relying on tired New Orleans clichés. In observing the most popular bands coming to Jazz Fest recently, he is constantly baffled at the success of the largely tuneless jam bands.
“I personally cannot stand jam sessions… they tend to be monosyllabic, existing at the lowest common denominator. I like to improvise within a framework that allows you to say something of substance.” While he admits that many of these bands have talented musicians, he finds the material lacking any real imagination. “Trying to get a soulful feeling out of that music is like trying to get news from USA Today as far as I’m concerned.”
Though not entirely familiar with today’s current crop of jam bands, he has heard it all before. “I grew up in a generation in England that set out to completely destroy jam bands.” A young Jon Cleary was entranced by the rebellious punk energy and passion of bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned. “The idea of a three-minute song played with lots of energy and emotion as opposed to Pink Floyd boring everyone with a whole side of a record was appealing to me.” His punk phase did not last long, but his need for passionate music never died.
“I left the punk thing when it became fashionable, but when I came to New Orleans, I’d see old men playing with passion and energy, getting down and busting a sweat, and it was a revelation.”
THE ABSOLUTE MONSTER GROOVE
When asked how he feels about his own band’s sound, Cleary is unabashedly confident. “Musically I think this is the strongest band in the city, and that’s not an idle brag,” declares Cleary.
The group dynamics of the band play a large role in its success. As band-leader, he must both make sure everyone is happy, and also make sure that everyone, including himself, is being stretched musically. The Gentlemen’s willingness to explore new avenues and grow musically has made Cleary’s job much easier.
The combination of discipline and a bevy of challenging material has made the band what it is today. In fact, the drive and ambition of the stellar backing band is so strong that they are showing signs of playfully rocking the boat. In speaking of his bandleader, Big D half-kiddingly announced, “Jon is the greatest. But he’s gotta stop hogging all the songwriting. Let us have a shot at it.” That’s about all the dirt that could be said about their British partner-in-funk.
Cornell states, “Jon is the most giving, most honest bandleader out there. He’d give you his last.” Jellybean concurs stating that of all the bandleaders he’s played with, Jon is the best. D explains, “When we say he’s the greatest bandleader, it’s not how you think. It’s not about the music … we’re all good friends, rollin’ like brothers, you know.”
Jellybean adds, “As side- men, we want to feel that no matter what the situation, we know he’ll go to bat for us. That’s all we want. It’s not about the money, or materialistic things. Jon will go to bat for us every time. That’s why the band is so tight musically. It goes beyond the music.”
The gooey good feelings are reciprocated by Cleary. “They’re my best friends. Just great people. The great thing about music is that it’s a bridge that crosses all the other social obstacles and realities that exist in this country. We’ve grown up together, both musically and as people.”
The band feels cautiously optimistic about their future. In the meantime, they will continue touring and finding time for alternative musical outlets.
The Gentlemen would like to organize a reunion of their gospel band, the Friendly Travelers, and are also considering doing an Absolute Monster Gentlemen project, highlighting their own considerable performance and songwriting talents. “We want to create our own sound, all the flavors that the three of us bring to the table,” says Big D, “and maybe we’ll let Jon sit in for a couple tunes.”
As for Mr. Cleary, he’ll continue with Bonnie Raitt and the Gentlemen, but eventually wants to find time to escape and wipe the slate clean to write some new material. He’s also been tinkering with the idea of doing a piano record, concentrating on the Caribbean sound, Cuban music in particular. He’s spent over 20 years learning how to play New Orleans R&B, and feels like it is time to stretch out.
“It’s not a major leap to go from Ernesto Lecuona to James Booker, or Professor Longhair to Miguel Matamoros.” Cuba has long been a passion of Cleary’s. “Cuba is what New Orleans used to be like before the United States exerted so much of its influence on it…it might just be a tiny detail of an old shop sign that’s been taken down, or the chopping down of an old banana tree, or a beautiful old flaky wall of a building being painted over…the city’s getting de-funked. Santiago is like New Orleans’ long-lost sister city.”
Cleary also respects the Cuban tradition of cherishing its past. “If you go to Havana you’ll find bands playing arrangements from the ’40s and ’50s as well as contemporary material, and everyone’s familiar with the genre. In this country the education system is so bad that people are cut off from their roots. Young people don’t know about all the legendary characters from New Orleans.”
Despite his love of Cuba, Cleary will always call New Orleans home. He recently read a review of the new Bonnie Raitt record (on which Jon plays piano and sings) in a British newspaper that identified Cleary as a “New Orleans piano player.”
He took the ignorance of his British birthright and proclamation of New Orleans citizenship as one of the best compliments he could possibly receive.