New Orleans keyboardist, singer and songwriter Jon Cleary has contributed to Grammy Award-winning albums by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King and Taj Mahal. But he never imagined, or aspired to, winning a Grammy of his own.
“I always paid so little attention to that stuff,” he said recently. “It seemed like it wasn’t a part of my music, or of being a frontman in New Orleans. It was so far removed, like another planet.”
But when the 58th annual Grammy Awards ceremony commences tonight (Monday, Feb. 15) at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, Cleary plans to be in the audience. His 2015 release “GoGo Juice” is nominated as the best regional roots music album of the year.
“It would be nice,” he said, “to bring a Grammy back to Louisiana, and let people know what we’re doing down here.”
Only a handful of major awards will be handed out during the live CBS telecast, which starts at 7 p.m. Central Time. It will consist mostly of performances by such A-list stars as Adele, Taylor Swift, rapper Kendrick Lamar – the year’s most nominated act, with 11 -- the Weeknd, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Bieber with Skrillex and Diplo, and Sam Hunt paired with Carrie Underwood.
Segments are also devoted to three prominent musicians who died. The Eagles and Jackson Browne will pay tribute to Glenn Fry. Lady Gaga will salute David Bowie. And Bonnie Raitt, Chris Stapleton and Gary Clark Jr. will join forces for a B.B. King tribute.
Such superstar showcases seem far removed from the world of working New Orleans musicians such as Jon Cleary.
He grew up in England, bewitched by New Orleans rhythm & blues records brought home by his uncle. He learned guitar, then moved to New Orleans in 1980. He landed a job painting the Maple Leaf Bar, which gave him free access to piano legend James Booker’s weekly rehearsals and shows.
Inspired, Cleary took up the piano. He worked as a sideman, and eventually assembled his own band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. He released albums that drew on funk, soul, gospel and R&B. He also spent a decade in Bonnie Raitt’s band, and toured with modern jazz guitarist John Scofield and Dr. John.
His own music often takes shape at his home studio in Bywater. “GoGo Juice,” his eighth album, is typically eclectic; Allen Toussaint wrote horn arrangements for several songs.
Cleary was proud of the result, but did not envision “GoGo Juice” competing for a Grammy. Then he went to breakfast with Reid Wick, the local representative of Grammy parent organization the Recording Academy.
Wick hoped to convince Cleary to join the Recording Academy. The more local musicians who become voting members, the more local albums are likely to be nominated and win.
“People vote for what they know,” said Wick, who is also a guitarist in popular local cover band the Bucktown Allstars. “They vote for what they hear in the clubs and on the radio.”
Wick, a longtime fan of Cleary, “advocated for him to participate in the process. The more people that participate in the process, the healthier it is.”
Cleary is one of several Grammy nominees with local ties, including jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Jamison Ross, the drummer in the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Ross’ self-titled debut is nominated for best jazz vocal album.
The catch-all “regional roots music” category was created after several other minor Grammy categories – including a stand-alone Cajun and zydeco award – were eliminated. Cleary is competing against southwest Louisiana band the Revelers, two Hawaiian acts, and an all-female Native American drum troupe.
“The biggest problem I’ve faced over the years is, ‘What category does my music fit into?’” he said. “If it doesn’t fit easily into a category, that’s a sign that I’m doing something right artistically. But that also makes it hugely difficult for the business people to go out and sell it. New Orleans music has suffered from that a little bit.
“Ultimately, it’s to your advantage. If you keep on doing what you do, and do it well, you become your own category.”
He learned of his Grammy nomination via a Google Alert while on tour with Scofield, who was also nominated. “We both had a laugh about it at breakfast that morning,” Cleary said.
By coincidence, he and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen were already scheduled to be touring the West Coast during Grammy week. He and the Revelers were subsequently booked for the tenth annual “Only in Louisiana” brunch in Los Angeles on Saturday. Sponsored by the Louisiana office of culture, recreation and tourism and hosted this year by newly installed Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, the brunch aims to promote the state during the busy Grammy weekend.
Some artists badly crave a Grammy. Irma Thomas wept when she finally won in 2007, after two previous nominations. Rebirth Brass Band co-founder and tuba player Phil Frazier once said, “I’d rather win a Grammy than get rich.” When his band’s “Rebirth of New Orleans” won for best regional roots music album in 2012, he said it was “like New Orleans winning the Super Bowl all over again.”
Should Cleary triumph, he is unlikely to weep or make Super Bowl comparisons. Still, he appreciates the practical benefits. “If we get it, other people may pay attention, and it may get them to come to my gigs. I’m very aware of the potential results that come from winning.”
Win or lose, on Tuesday morning he’ll set off for the next stop on his tour. But should he receive a gold Gramophone, he already has plans for it. “I think I’ll give it to my mum. I think she’d be very excited.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.