Harry Connick, Jr. (Photo: Matthias Vriens-Mcgrath)
Harry Connick, Jr. (Photo: Matthias Vriens-Mcgrath)

Harry Connick, Jr.

The multifaceted entertainer discusses his career, his business jet travel and his efforts to aid New Orleans musicians in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

With sales of more than 28 million albums, Harry Connick, Jr. ranks among America’s bestselling recording artists. A winner of three Grammys and two Emmys, this composer/pianist/silky-voiced singer is also an actor whose films include Little Man Tate, Independence Day and Dolphin Tale. On Broadway, Connick received Tony Award nominations as composer/lyricist of Thou Shalt Not and as lead actor in The Pajama Game. He had a recurring TV role on Will & Grace and was one of the three judges on the latest season of American Idol

A child prodigy, Connick learned to play piano when he was 3. At 5, he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and accompanied himself on piano in his first public performance. At 9, he performed as a classical pianist with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra and, at 10, he made his first record, Dixieland Plus. (It was produced by his father, an amateur singer who served as district attorney of the parish that includes New Orleans from 1973 to 2003.) 

Connick, who played Tanglewood at 16, left Loyola University in New Orleans after one semester and headed for New York City in search of a record contract. His big break came when Rob Reiner chose him to perform the soundtrack for 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, which went double platinum and earned Connick his first Grammy at age 22. 

After Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans native wanted to make sure that music continued to be the city’s lifeblood, so he teamed with fellow recording artist Branford Marsalis to create Musicians’ Village, a community in the Upper Ninth Ward that provides homes for musicians and has a community center, performance hall, recording studio and after-school kids’ facility.

We talked with Connick at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, while he was in town for an American Idol taping. He was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with a golden fleur-de-lis, which has long been a symbol for New Orleans and Louisiana and has recently been used to signify ­support for Hurricane Katrina recovery.

You played in New Orleans jazz clubs on Bourbon Street as a child?

It wasn’t uncommon to see young people in the clubs, and it’s not uncommon for older musicians in New Orleans to invite young musicians up to play. Over the years, my parents took me down there as much as they could. The musicians got to know me and they’d have me come up and play traditional jazz.

When you were 14, you played your first professional jazz gig. How good were you at that point?

As good as I could have been, playing with guys way out of my league. In New Orleans music, the song forms can be very complicated. It is not like a traditional AABA song form—it might be AABACDABEA. When you play the melody, you have to commit that song form to memory because in a couple of choruses it is going to be time for your solo and if you don’t know the song form, it will be obvious to everybody onstage that you can’t keep up. You’re forced to be attentive.

Who’s your biggest musical influence?

[Jazz pianist] Ellis Marsalis was my formal teacher so I had his instruction and the experience of being around him in a performing context. [Rhythm and blues musician] James Booker was a completely different kind of influence—not a formal teacher but he taught me things whenever he could. These are heavyweights, and then there were all the people I listened to on records, from [rock singer and Queen front man] Freddie Mercury to Sinatra to [Peruvian soprano] Yma Sumac. 

What do you do to train as a singer?

A lot of it is very physical. I exercise and I don’t do what is going to hurt my voice: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I try to sleep and I try to drink a lot of water. My voice is my instrument. 

Did being from New Orleans inform you as a person?

Profoundly. It’s hard to articulate, but there’s a spirit in New Orleans that is different from any other place I’ve been. You can’t help but come out of there with a deep connection to the place.

At 18, you left New Orleans for New York City to pursue a record contract?

There was a guy named George Butler who had signed a gazillion people, among them, Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Butler had heard me when I was 14 at a jazz competition in Kansas City and said, “When you come to New York, gave me a call.” I called him every day for six months until he finally said, “OK, we’ll sign.”

How did you end up on TV, starring in Will & Grace?

I’d been doing plays and high school musicals and that was something I loved to do. When I was 20, I had the chance to play a part in a movie called Memphis Belle. I really liked it and decided to see if I could do both things [music and acting]; I could, because movies take a couple of months and albums take a couple of days to record. When you spend years and years as a performer, to me it’s a natural progression to do anything related to performance. 

You were a mentor on American Idoland now you’re a judge. What’s the difference?

As a mentor you can spend unlimited time and have a dialogue and break down a performance—it’s a real give and take. Judging is being presented with a performance and responding to it in like half a minute. It’s totally different. I haven’t met the kids on American Idol, and we’re months into it. It’s a very different dynamic.

You live in Connecticut. Do you miss New Orleans?

No, because I’m home all the time. I call New Orleans my home because it is my birthplace and I’m always going back.

You’re a musician, singer, composer, children’s book author, actor and American Idol judge, and you also have a wife and children. How do you do it all?

Well, my wife and kids come first. My manager, whom I’ve been with for almost 30 years, knows how important my family is, so when it comes to making up my schedule, she makes sure that my family comes first. Before I got married and had kids, I’d go on the road for six months. Now I go for two weeks tops and then come home for a couple of weeks. That works better for me.

How often do you fly?

I fly to Los Angeles every week as part of my job as an American Idol judge, and I fly to New Orleans about eight times a year.

How do you fly? 

I’ve used fractional shares and jet cards and I’ve caught rides with friends, and I also fly commercial. My private flights—usually on a GV, Citation X or Hawker 800XP—depend on the project and the studio or network.

Who flies with you?  

If I’m traveling for personal matters, I’m usually with my family, and if it’s for business it can be just me or my entire band, depending on whether I’m performing or just doing something solo.

Why do you fly privately?

It’s all about time. If you need to get somewhere quickly and conveniently, it’s the way to go. Movie sets and concerts aren’t always in cities that have direct routes for commercial flights, so private jets can help me get from point A to point B directly.

Twenty-one years ago, you created the Orpheus super krewe for Mardi Gras. How did that happen?

There were no parades that formally included black people and white people or men and women. There was one black parade and one female parade, but the rest of them were all white men. I thought to have something so socially significant [that is not] an accurate representation of the population of New Orleans seemed a little off, so I pulled some smart people together and we decided to do something new.

You started the Musicians’ Village in 2007 with Branford Marsalis. How did you go about doing that?

After Katrina, everybody left, which decimated the population of musicians in New Orleans. They needed places to work, so Branford and I thought, “What could we do?” I’d done some work with Habitat for Humanity and we ended up with Habitat and the applicants for what was to be a Musicians’ Village, building about 80 residences. A federal mandate says you can’t exclude non-musicians, so we just made sure that every musician we knew signed up. About 80 percent of the people living in Musicians’ Village are musicians and their families. The centerpiece is a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art complex, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music with a performance hall, recording facilities and classes seven days a week. Some of the musicians who live in the Village teach and volunteer—it’s just turned into this amazing thing. We are very proud of it. 


FAST FACTS

NAME: Joseph Harry Fowler Connick, Jr.

BIRTHDATE: Sept. 11, 1967 (age 47)

OCCUPATION: Singer, musician, composer, actor 

TRANSPORTATION: Chartered business jets. Has also had fractional shares and jet cards.

EDUCATION: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Loyola University (one semester)

PERSONAL: Married to actress and former model Jill Goodacre since 1994. Children: Georgia, 18; Kate, 17; Charlotte, 12.  Loves fishing.

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