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 winners of the 58th annual Grammy Awards were announced Monday in Los Angeles, Cleary was among them. His 2015 release “GoGo Juice” was named the best regional roots music album of the year.
Most of the 83 Grammys are handed out during a Monday afternoon ceremony at the Microsoft Theater that precedes the telecast of the major awards and performances from the Staples Center.
Reached backstage while waiting to have his picture taken with other winners, Cleary used a British expression to describe his newly acquired Grammy: “It’s a turn-up for the books — an unexpected surprise. It’s a bit strange, really.”
His path to that honor was an unlikely one. 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, where 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 first 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 Raitt’s band and toured with modern jazz guitarist John Scofield and local legend 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 he never envisioned “GoGo Juice” competing for a Grammy. Then he went to breakfast with Reid Wick, the local representative of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammys’ parent organization.
Wick hoped to persuade Cleary to join the 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 a guitarist in a 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, said he urged “him to participate in the process. The more people that participate in the process, the healthier it is.”
Cleary was the only active member of the New Orleans music community to win a Grammy on Monday. Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who has triumphed several times in the past, didn’t add to this trophy case this year. Jamison Ross, the drummer in the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, was nominated in the best jazz vocal album category for his self-titled debut, but didn’t win.
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 competed against the 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.”
That said, lesser-known artists can benefit from billing themselves as a “Grammy winner.” Such a designation may entice new fans to shows. “I’m very aware of the potential results that come from winning,” Cleary said.
After the nominations were announced, he researched the other artists in his category. “I love Hawaiian music, and the Revelers are a hip little band,” he said. “So the Grammy would have gone to somebody deserving. But of course I’m pleased to win it for New Orleans.”
Cleary’s victory capped a busy week of touring the West Coast with the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. On Saturday, they and the Revelers performed at the “Only in Louisiana” brunch in Los Angeles. Sponsored by the Louisiana Department 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.
On Sunday night, Cleary and his band played a gig in Marin County, in northern California. He didn’t get to bed until 2 a.m., then had to wake up two hours later to catch an early-morning flight to Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards.
He hoped to stay long enough at Monday night’s televised ceremony to see his friend and former employer Raitt play as part of a B.B. King tribute. “I don’t know if I can last that long,” he said. “If I wilt, I’ll go back to the hotel.”
He’s scheduled to fly home to New Orleans on Tuesday. A day later, he’ll jet off to a solo show in chilly Minnesota, followed by a Chicago concert with the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
Before the ceremony, Cleary had said that if he won, he’d probably give the gold Grammy gramophone to his mother, who lives in England. On Monday, he said that’s still the plan.
“If she wants it, yes,” he said, before resorting to more British slang: “She’ll be chuffed — she’ll be pleased.”