It’s All Good: Harry Connick’s Wide-Ranging Success

By Larry Getlen

Harry Connick, Jr. is bringing his show to Broadway. Larry Getlen talks to the multitalented star about a career that’s made music, acting, and even helping save his city seem like a walk in the park.

Harry Conick Jr. Photo by Palma Kolansky

Harry Conick Jr. Photo by Palma Kolansky

There are artists whose artistry comes primarily from laboring at their craft for decades, and then there are those for whom preternatural talent somehow flows through their DNA. While you could never say that New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. hasn’t worked hard over the years to excel at music, acting, philanthropy, and seemingly everything else he turns his mind to, there is no question that when it comes to natural talent, he is one of the blessed.

“I was three when I started playing,” says Connick, who speaks with City Scoops on an overseas call, right before taking the stage for a concert in Istanbul.

“We had a piano in the house, and it was fascinating to me that you could press the notes on this funny-looking box and these sounds would come out. I just loved it. It was very accessible and interesting to me.”

Connick began playing in New Orleans clubs astonishingly early, at around the age of six or seven. Even in a city with music in its blood, this was an impressive achievement.

“I’d go down on the weekends and sit in with the guys in the band,” he says. “Clubs are open all day, and it’s very common to see kids there. I remember going to clubs and sitting in with musicians and hanging out with them. That’s part of tradition there, that young musicians come and play, and spend time around the older ones. That was my childhood. A lot of kids go out and play sports and do other things. I went to the French Quarter and played with these musicians.”

Anyone who sees Connick in concert will have no trouble believing that he’s been playing almost since his days in the womb. Connick headlines a limited Broadway engagement July 15-26 at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street) and will make these shows special by improvising his set lists every night — deciding on songs on the fly, thereby guaranteeing that people who see more than one night of the run will experience a different show each time.

“It’s not often I play that many nights in a row, so for our sanity, we change it up a lot,” says Connick. “I’ll be playing some songs I recorded recently, some that I recorded a long time ago, and stuff I’ve never recorded.”

Connick, accompanied by a band of between 16 and 20 musicians, uses special computer software that allows his band members to call up sheet music to his songs in seconds.

“I know what song I’m gonna start with, and for the first couple of songs we’ll have an idea of where we’re going,” he says. “But after that, it’s wherever it goes. I’m thinking about it as the show goes on.”

Connick at a session for “Your Songs,” his 2009 collection of popular classics.

Connick at a session for “Your Songs,” his 2009 collection of popular classics.

Connick’s expertise has been appreciated far and wide of late, even on the country’s most popular television show, “American Idol.” His appearance as a mentor went so well, it instantly spurred speculation that Connick might replace “Idol” judge Simon Cowell.

While Connick could have easily treated the appearance as a quick and simple cameo, instead he set standards for himself to ensure that contestants get the most from his expertise.

“I’ve had mentors and I know what they do, so I just wanted to do as much as I could,” he says. “It was a chance to really help the contestants out, because that’s what a person with experience does for a younger person. That’s how the music goes forward.”

While Connick began playing at three, learning classical piano and music theory throughout his childhood, it wasn’t until he was thirteen that he began his relationship with the man who would become his greatest mentor, jazz pianist and patriarch Ellis Marsalis.

“Ellis was everything at that point,” says Connick, who played back then with Ellis’ son Delfeayo, since Marsalis boys (and future stars) Wynton and Branford were older. “I was taking all kinds of different music classes, but Ellis’ tutelage was the most valuable, because he was on the scene, playing. He set a bar that was so high, it instilled a work ethic in all of his students that I still use to this day.”

Given his great experience in this area, he battled the Idol producers to let him play mentor his way.

Connick leading an orchestra during the recording of “Your Songs.”

Connick leading an orchestra during the recording of “Your Songs.”

“The day the kids went into the studio to record, I had a rehearsal. I said, ‘I wanna be there when they record,’ and [the producers] said, ‘You can’t, because you have to do camera blocking for the show.’ And I said, ‘We’re gonna have to work this out, because I can’t let them go in the studio and not be there. They don’t have to use me when I’m there, but I have to be present for them in case they decide they want me for something.’ So they rearranged it, and I went to the studio. I was there for them.”

When asked about the possibility of replacing Cowell, Connick tells City Scoops that he has not been formally approached about the role as of press time, and that if he were offered the job, there would be much to discuss before he could consider accepting.

“There’s just a huge amount of questions that I would have — it’s a big time commitment,” he says. “I would have to really sit down with them and figure out what they had in mind. That’s a big, big chunk of time, and I have a lot of other things on the plate.”

While the position of “American Idol” judge would seem too high-profile a gig for most to even consider turning down, Connick relishes the freedom to bounce between projects, like his current Broadway stint, which he considers a far different animal than playing a traditional series of concerts.

“It’s one thing to play a concert in the city,” he says, “but being at a Broadway house, especially one as legendary as the Neil Simon, really has a magical feel to it. I don’t think of the Broadway houses as concert halls. I think of them as jewels that dot the city. They have incredible histories and a special meaning for people because of the shows that have been there.”

Connick’s affinity for the city runs deep. While he currently lives with his family in Connecticut, he moved here from New Orleans when he was 18. He had hoped to get signed to Columbia Records, which had already signed his friends Wynton and Branford. While he accomplished that goal before long, he did pay his dues, living for about a year at the 92nd Street Y, and living the life of the impoverished artist.

Connick leading an orchestra during the recording of “Your Songs.”

Connick in the studio for “Your Songs.”

“I had some friends who were well-connected, and they’d take me to dinner now and then, and I’d get a chance to see how rich people lived,” he says. “But I was just slumming it, man. I was living at the Y, and just walking up and down streets trying to find places that had pianos so I could ask them if they needed a piano player. That’s how I spent my first year there.”

Connick played video games with his friends at the Y when not playing piano at places like Chez Josephine, the recently shuttered Empire Diner, and Our Lady of Good Council on 91st Street.

Signing with Columbia led to several album releases, but his real big break came when director Rob Reiner asked him to write music for his film “When Harry Met Sally.” The film took off, and so did Connick’s career.

“I started getting a lot of work, and people wanted to hear the music from that movie,” he says. “They wanted to hear big band stuff, because that’s what [that music] was, and I had never really played with a big band before that. So I went out on tour and found myself having this big band, and I needed to write because I didn’t have any charts. So I started writing for the big band and went from there.”

Since then, Connick has had success as a pianist and singer with small jazz combos and big bands alike, and he’s been equally in demand as an actor. He’s appeared in blockbuster films such as “Independence Day,” Broadway shows like “The Pajama Game” (which earned him a 2006 Tony nomination for Best Actor), and had a recurring role on “Will and Grace” that did more to increase his public profile than anything he’s done to date.

“When you get on television, it’s a different type of celebrity than film. It’s very accessible,” he says. “There’s [more of] a distance with movie actors than with TV actors. Maybe it’s because you come to them on a TV show, and they go to you [in a movie]. It’s just a different dynamic. People come up to you and say, ‘How could you cheat on Grace?’ You’d have to take a step back and realize what they were talking about.”

The strangest thing for Connick about his time on “Will and Grace” was that it made him a household name among people who had no idea he was even a musician.

“I’d be playing in some city in Iowa,” he says, “and they’d say, ‘What are you doing here?’ I’d say, ‘I’m on tour,’ and they’d say, ‘Doing what? Playing music? Really? We didn’t know you played music.’ That took a little getting used to.”

Connick lends a hand for New Orleans Habitat Musicians Village.

Connick lends a hand for New Orleans Habitat Musicians Village.

While Connick enjoys the multifaceted nature of his career, his greatest satisfaction to date has been the assistance he was able to provide to his beloved hometown after Hurricane Katrina. Connick recalls his heartbreaking view of the city in the disaster’s aftermath.

“When you have to go around town in a boat, that kind of freaks you out,” he says. “Seeing the convention center and all the people there was really bad. Everything was just underwater, man. It was a chaotic time. It was very, very disturbing, because the last thing you think of when you think of a beautiful little city is chaos. It was pure chaos. Everyone was running around, no one knew what to do, and there seemed to be no end in sight. It was very disheartening to be around that.”

In light of the tragedy, Connick and Branford Marsalis came up with the idea for New Orleans Habitat Musicians Village, an effort that, in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, provided homes for musicians who were displaced by the hurricane. Eighty homes and five elder-friendly duplexes had been completed as of last September, and a 150-seat performance center, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, is also in the works.

For Connick and Marsalis, this was an attempt to not just help out the city they love, but also preserve its musical culture.

Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. inspect their devastated hometown.

Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. inspect their devastated hometown.

“Branford and I decided we wanted to do something to help,” he says, “so we came up with the idea of trying to get some homes built, [thinking that] hopefully it would entice some of the displaced musicians to come back. And here we are five years later, and we built 80 homes, and 80 percent of those homes are lived in by musicians and their families. And we just started construction on the $10 million music center, which is also gonna have teaching facilities, recording space, a community center with Internet access, and a toddler park. We’re just real proud of it.”

As a man with a history of having his every project turn to gold, Connick is hopefully on the money when he says that given both time and hard work, the city of New Orleans can return to its former glory.

“I think it’s getting back to normal. It’s day by day,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of physical and emotional destruction down there. It’s gonna take a long time for a city of that size to get back on its feet. It’s difficult to put into words how vast the devastation was, but five years have passed and it’s made considerable progress. I think that in five more years it’ll be even better, and hopefully just continue to flourish.”

For tickets to Harry Connick Jr. on Broadway, go to ticketmaster.com or call 800-745-3000.

Larry Getlen is the Editor-in-Chief of City Scoops Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/larrygetlen.

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