There's Something About Harry

by Joseph Gallivan
Hamptons Magazine, June 17, 2001

Harry Connick Jr. is an enigma. He is vastly talented yet not part of the jazz pantheon; a family man who still parties; a Southerner who has been in New York since he was 18 (yet has only been to the Hamptons twice); a singer, musician, composer, arranger, lyricist, conductor. Funkster. Actor.

He and I are sitting in his black tour bus in the parking lot of a middle school in Richmond, Virginia. In person he's extremely affable, far bigger than his photo, yet slightly less good looking. He is down here shooting Mickey in which he plays the single dad of a baseball prodigy. Director Hugh Wilson, who made The First Wives Club, corners me and says his star is great, he's on time, and he knows his lines. "I've worked with some real monsters who get much better press, and he's nothing like them," Wilson confides.

Every time Connick gets a half-hour break in filming, he strides back to the bus to work on his next album. Between the lounge at the front and his bedroom at the back, he set up a tiny portable recording studio, which he built. On a good day he does six solid hours of writing music.

This is the essence of the current Harry Connick Jr. -- an ultra-professional, obsessed musician with a need to perform live and an almost Buddhist acceptance of his fate. Since he became a father, Connick has embraced the big picture -- family life comes first, but performing is a very close second. He takes the bus six hours from the set back to his Manhattan home twice a week, and his face lights up when he talks about his daughters, Georgia Tatom, 5, and Sara Kate, 3.

None of his fears of having a child -- whether he could handle the responsibility and the sleepless nights -- came true. "I can't imagine not wanting to comfort a crying child of mine," he told interviewers in the documentary The Worlds of Harry Connick Jr. Today, he is still amazed at how simple it is. "If you do what is instinctively right, there'll be a mutual respect and love and a friendship," he says. "I just think it's important to do what your gut is telling you to do."

Connick's gut has good grounding.

He had wonderfully supportive parents. His mother, Anita, who died of cancer when he was 13, literally stood over him while he practiced Bach. Harry Connick Sr. has been the district attorney in New Orleans for 28 years. Musical influences on the family were catholic with a small "c". It didn't matter if the venue was a concert hall or a downtown bar, as long as Connick could perform. There are a lot of old candid videos of the Connick family; one of the most poignant is a clip of his mother saying she hopes he'll play Carnegie Hall one day.

A veritable Tiger Woods of the ivories, Connick discovered the keyboards at 3, at 6 he played the "Star Spangled Banner" at his dad's inauguration, and before he was a teen they were taking him down Bourbon Street (before it was a tourist hellhole) to sit in with legends such as Professor Longhair and Doctor John. Then his dad's chauffeur began taking him to lessons with Ellis Marsalis, the father of the Marsalis clan that drives today's deadly serious jazz-as-American-classical-music bandwagon.

Now, Connick is 33 and figuring out how to be a supportive parent to his own children -- and manage his career. "As I get older I see more of my father in myself," Connick says. "It's more than what he said to me, it's his nature, his backbone, his sense of morals. He's a hero to me, and I don't know if I can live up to that. He has pretty high standards. I hope that I bring something like that to my girls."

Connick Sr. has an old-fashioned sense of discipline. "He's real cool, real laid back, but you don't want to mess up or do anything to disrespect him or dishonor him," Connick Jr. says.

His wife, former Victoria's Secret model Jill Goodacre, has no doubts about his parenting. In The Worlds of Harry Connick Jr. documentary, she says one of the great things about marrying Connick was that she knew he would be a great father. "We've gone to parties where the adults are in one room, except for Harry, who'll be in another with all the children on the floor around him, telling them some big story, their eyes all wide."

He also sings to his daughters, but not with his stage voice. "I sing to them like any parent's gonna sing, and it sounds really kinda goofy, I guess," he says.

Children and adults can look forward to him crooning on his upcoming CD of classic children's songs selected from Jungle Book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and The Sound of Music. "It's half orchestral and half big band. I'm not sure if kids will like it, it's really difficult music."

He's a showman at heart, so he'll take any chance to drop the big band baton and play piano or cradle the mike. If you've ever seen Connick dance across the stage, jump on the back of a chair and topple it over in slow motion, leaping off just as it hits the ground, you'll realize his star quality. He's a little like Prince -- multitalented, a Duke Ellington nut, and familiar with the harping of the critics. There can't be many other artists with such a desire to perform, and yet a willingness to please himself. "It's some combination of genes that makes you pursue it with a passion like you have to do it, like you have to play, it's a fierce competitiveness that comes almost out of nowhere, you see it in people from time to time, and I happen to have it with music."

Yet, jazz critics often dismiss Connick (a surly scribe once called him "Frank Synopsis"). "There's a sense that if you don't stick to one thing, you can't be the best," says Lee Mergner, publisher of Jazz Times, trying to explain the snub. "But it's a very New Orleans thing to mix up your music -- blues, jazz, funk. He's had three musical careers already."

The 1996 Star Turtle, a funk concept album about musical aliens landing in the Big Easy, left many fans confused. But that's Connick, always experimenting, testing out his rebellious streak.

But, as maturity has landed on his broad shoulders, he is finally rising above the serious-versus-shallow split that critics like to project on to him. Connick has 12 albums under his belt and as many films, although he is best known for the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally and acting roles in Hope Floats, Independence Day, Little Man Tate, and Memphis Belle. Now he's writing the words and music for Thou Shalt Not, a Lincoln Center Theater musical that is opening at the Plymouth Theatre on Broadway in October. The director is none other than Susan Stroman, the force behind the smash hit The Producers.

"I don't know how it'll go," he says of Thou Shalt Not. "It could be incredible. I hope so. Or it may be incredibly bad!"

But, if you've heard his stunning interpretation of "There's No Business Like Show Business" on his 1999 CD Come By Me, you'll know Connick understands modern Broadway perfectly. A song that is usually sung helter-skelter by grinning grease painters, he makes it smolder, drawing out each phrase without losing any of the dramatic impact. (It helps that Irving Berlin's song is a comic masterpiece.)

And even though Mergner wouldn't call him an innovator ("I don't think he's influenced a lot of people, compared with, say, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Keith Jarrett."), he says Connick will have a great career in singing standards and acting. "Thousands of people sing the standards, yet he's the only one since Tony Bennett who's connected with the material and with [a] mass audience. That's certainly a great achievement. Remember, Nat Cole was as good a piano player as Oscar Peterson but he's remembered as a singer."

A year from now we might be talking of Connick's Tony, how he became the East End's new Piano Man, or how toddlers made his album storm the charts. He couldn't care less, but he'll take his bow anyway.

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