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Art and jazz, the heritage of a neuroscientist who grew up in Pasco County

John C. O’Leary III has a Ph.D. and is a full-time jazz pianist
John C. O’Leary III mimics the motion of playing the piano in this picture.
John C. O’Leary III mimics the motion of playing the piano in this picture. [ JOHN O'LEARY S.,CHOLULA,PUEBLA,MEXIC | Photo: Courtesy John O’Leary S. ]
Published Oct. 23
Updated Oct. 25

Times Correspondent

John C. O’Leary III, who earned master’s and Ph.D. degrees in neuroscience from the University of South Florida, decided after graduation that he really wanted to be a musician, and he never looked back.

“I make a living as a jazz pianist,’’ he says, as if he can’t believe it. “It’s wild!’’

O’Leary, 36, was born in the Yucatan Peninsula and moved to Pasco County just before his 13th birthday. His mother was a Mexican concert pianist and retired as a Pinellas County school teacher, and his father is an American-born photographer. O’Leary performs in the trio, La Lucha, appearing locally at Eddie V’s in Tampa, the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg and at jazz festivals and other venues around the country. O’Leary also performs solo often at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

La Lucha has recorded six albums, and O’Leary has recorded two solo albums. His second, scheduled for release in January by Arbors Records, features 10 solo performances, three duets with nine-time Grammy Award-winning pianist Shaun Martin and one duet with 94-year-old jazz pianist Dick Hyman, whose career spans 70 years. Yamaha pianos has selected O’Leary as a Yamaha Performing Artist; other Yamaha artists include John Legend and Elton John.

O’Leary talked about music and neuroscience with the Tampa Bay Times.

How did you decide to study neuroscience?

My father and my grandfather felt at that time that, as it is still now, it’s very hard to have a solid career as a musician, to earn a good living with benefits, retirement, all these things. They really wanted me… to get a degree that would help me get a good job.

They did not mind for me to study music as well, as long as I did both. From the very beginning I studied chemistry and I studied music. At first chemistry and tuba performance and eventually, when I finally made a transition to jazz, I became a chemistry and jazz piano double major. …

I was taking full pre-med courses, thinking about going to medical school for my money-earning career and then studying music on the side. … It’s a lot of work to do a double-major, so five years went by and I only had enough credits to graduate with a bachelor of arts in jazz piano performance, so I didn’t even end up finishing my chemistry degree. ...

I really did enjoy science. I wasn’t great at it but I was pretty good. So I applied at the college of medicine to do basic biology research... in the neuroscience lab. And I got paired with (the late) Dr. Chad Dickey. He was at the Johnnie Byrd Alzheimer’s (Institute). … That’s where I did my Ph.D. I spent five years… working on a master’s and Ph.D. in neuroscience. …

We worked on a group of proteins called chaperone proteins and how we could use those to help cure or lessen the burden of these diseases, specifically Alzheimer’s disease and then stress-related diseases like depression.

John is a Mexican American jazz pianist and neuroscientist . He's the pianist for the  trio La Lucha in the Tampa Bay area.
John is a Mexican American jazz pianist and neuroscientist . He's the pianist for the trio La Lucha in the Tampa Bay area. [ JOHN O'LEARY S.,CHOLULA,PUEBLA,MEXIC | Photo: Courtesy John O'Leary S. ]
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Did you work for a while as a neuroscientist?

I did not. I finished my Ph.D. and I really wanted to do music. So I did not know what to do. It’s like, how can I make this happen? What is the best way to do this? So I decided to take a year off. … One year, and if I really missed science, or if I really felt that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a musician, I would just stop.

Now at this point I (had) already been with La Lucha since 2006. We weren’t officially La Lucha until 2009, but we had been playing and making music together since 2006. …

We didn’t make our first record until 2009. By the time I graduated I had two albums with La Lucha, and I was playing a couple of nights a week at Mitchell’s Fish Market (the Tampa location closed last year). My wife (Samantha O’Leary) was pregnant, and we were trying to buy a house, and I said, “Honey, I think I want to be a jazz musician.” And she was incredibly supportive and said, “Okay. Well, here we go.’’ … She’s a nurse at All Children’s Hospital.

Your mother started teaching you piano when you were three years old. Did you like taking lessons?

My mom is a very good teacher for children. And as a kid, it was fun. She had a piano studio. I enjoyed it very much. I would play with the other kids and each kid would come out of their playing time to take their… lesson. And we would do group assignments together. It was very fun. She would help me practice. She would, like, pay me to practice, or I could go to the store and pick something out. … She enforced it. I had to practice before my homework and then do homework and only then could I watch TV or go out and play with my friends. …

I resisted it when we moved to America. I was almost 13 … I had zero interest to continue practicing the piano. I wanted to meet new people, I wanted to be social.

How did you regain your enthusiasm for it?

At that point I joined the middle school band, and I played the tuba. That’s what they needed. … So during middle school and high school and my first two years of college, I thought I was going to be an orchestral tuba player. And in the last three years of high school… they asked me to play piano in the jazz band. I didn’t really know any jazz. I just listened and read the sheet music as best I could and we took it from there. …

Our fourth, fifth and sixth periods we’d go and play a gig at the Lions club, so it was very cool. … I wasn’t very good. I didn’t have any teacher for jazz at that time. I didn’t really know any jazz theory or harmony. I listened to this album of Oscar Peterson. … I listened to that and I cried, and I told my mom that one day I would grow up and I would play like Oscar Peterson.

So I grew up and I still can’t play like Oscar Peterson (laughs).

You played classical growing up. You also play blues, but you gravitated to jazz. Do you like all three genres?

I love all music. Duke Ellington said that there was two kinds of music. There was good music, and then there’s the other kind. I thought, wow, that’s a great way to put it.

O’Leary will perform with Shaun Martin at the Palladium Theater Nov. 7. For more information, go to mypalladium.org.