For Harry Connick’s 49th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature Article From 2002

For the 49th birthday of Harry Connick, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, on the  occasion of his CD Songs I Heard and the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not, for which he wrote the score. I was given quite a bit of access to him, and he was quite open and self-aware — a very interesting subject.

 

Harry Connick (Jazziz Article):

“Well, I made me a fortune, that fortune made ten; I’ve been headlined and profiled again and again,” Harry Connick murmurs to a languorous triplet groove over a plush magnolia carpet of slow-moaning strings and woodwinds. The Marvin Charnin verse is self-descriptive; like cartoon tycoon Daddy Warbucks, who delivers the lyric in Annie, Connick has the Midas touch. A bona-fide Pop Culture celebrity with a high recognition quotient, he packs arenas singing songs he wrote and dancing steps he devised in front of a well-oiled 17-piece big band that plays arrangements he composed. He has two Grammies to go with four multi-platinum, three platinum and three gold albums. He is an increasingly visible presence in film and television, and models clothing by Tom Ford (Yves St. Laurent and Gucci) and Prada in the pages of Esquire and GQ. Last summer he made his first foray into big-time theater, composing the score and lyricist of the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not.

Connick strikes a chord on the piano, changes the key, and croons: “But something was missing. I never quite knew that something was someone. But who?” Daddy Warbucks’ existential ache for family, fatherhood and reciprocal love is emphatically not an autobiographical reference. Connick, 34, and Jill Goodacre, the model-videographer who is his wife of eight years, have two young daughters, and he remains close to his father, Harry Connick, Sr., the incumbent District Attorney of New Orleans since 1974.

Connick’s gnawing question might more appropriately be phrased, “But what?” Perhaps the answer is respect — from hardcore jazz observers who dismiss him as a lightweight — and comprehension — from fans who dote on his chiseled image and charisma and are clueless about his craft. The content of Songs I Heard [Columbia], the two-time Grammy winner’s recent release from July 2001, won’t help matters; including “Something Was Missing,” it contains 16 “children’s songs” from Annie, Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, The Wizard Of Oz, and Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, few of which hold much cache among art-oriented jazz musicians.

None of this deters Connick, who displays his passport — as the lyric goes — to “the world of pure imagination, traveling in a world of my creation” as a conceptualist, singer, entertainer and pianist. Without condescension, he arranges each bar with painstaking detail, cherrypicking ideas from the imposing cliffs of tradition to sculpt his own contemporary hybrid. Having absorbed the instrumental personalities of his musicians over a decade of proximity, Connick the arranger deploys them as extensions of his mind’s ear. His timbral palette draws from Duke Ellington, Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Claus Ogerman and Quincy Jones; his pulse, which distinguishes Connick from his influences, partakes of a savory menu of New Orleans streetbeats. Connick the singer references the storytellers — Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra for elasticity of phrasing; Carmen McRae for clarity; Nat Cole for tone — and is now fully his own man. Connick the entertainer knows the craft of serious fun, how to convey to his audience the illusion of intimacy and spontaneity. Connick the pianist remains primarily in the background, notably excepting “Oompa-Loompa,” on which he creates a dramatic triologue between his voice, right hand and left hand in a manner singular to him.

“Living there,” he continues, “you’ll be free if you truly wish to be. And the world tastes good ’cause the Candy Man thinks it should.”

[BREAK]

Cool and focused in a white polo shirt, blue jeans and white Nikes, Connick faces his orchestra in an enormous studio at Manhattan’s Hit Factory. They are recording the brass and woodwind section for Connick’s chart of “America The Beautiful,” to be heard three weeks hence at the closing ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Connick wants them to put a Louis Armstrong feeling on the reharmonized, racehorse line. “Would it be possible to do the down-notes on the second beat and do a lip thing instead of a valve thing?” he asks quietly and firmly.

After the take, Connick grabs a bottle of water and strides into the control room. Buff and physical, he punctuates jivetalk to his musicians with sharp forearms to their chests and biceps, then flops into a chair next to drummer Arthur Latin to listen to the playback. As it rolls, he and Latin follow the score to a walking bass section that will accompany a tap interlude from Savion Glover. Latin suggests a rhythmic figure, and Connick assents. He leans toward Latin, grips his shoulder, stares into his eyes, and chants precisely how he wants the drummer to execute the beats on the kick cymbal. The band files back into the studio. They nail the take. “Beautiful playing,” Connick says. “Let’s do it a little slower. Keep it in that pocket. Big pocket.”

[BREAK]

Connick has marched to the beat of his own drummer since he was a small child in New Orleans. The son of a politically ambitious Catholic New Orleanian father and an artistically-inclined Manhattan-raised Jewish mother, each a lawyer and a jazz lover, he heard jazz music, as he puts it, “from the womb.” Gifted with perfect pitch, he took quickly to his classical lessons, assimilating the European and African-American canon in equal measure. With his father’s blessing, he learned the latter at the side of maestro James Booker, whose scope encompassed Jelly Roll Morton, Huey “Piano” Smith and Frederic Chopin, and whose lessons Connick applied at various trad clubs on Bourbon Street, where, under the gaze of his parents, he would be invited to sit in for a tune or two. By 14 or 15, Connick was doing whole gigs, observing such highly skilled local entertainers as Johnny Horn and Thomas Jefferson, and finding his own public persona in the company of such world-class Crescent City drum-masters as Smokey Johnson, Zigaboo Modaliste, Freddie Kohlman, John Vidacovich, Herlin Riley and James Black.

“Booker to this day is the greatest musician I was ever around,” says Connick the following morning in a suite at Sony Music Studios. “He was an inventor, and at this late date, to be able to invent something on an instrument as old as the piano is pretty impressive. He played things that were incredibly hard, and he was able to use the piano to communicate with people, much like Chopin used to do. I’ve always felt I have the ability to do that. I feel very at-home in that situation because I did it in my most formative years.”

Connick is about to mix the cast album for Thou Shalt Not, a musical adaptation of Thérèse Raquin — an Emile Zola novel of love, betrayal, murder and ensuing spiritual decay — that received almost uniformly negative reviews during its two-month run. Lifted from 1860s Paris to 1940s New Orleans, the production boasted a pithy book, visionary choreography from director Susan Stroman, state-of-the-art sets spanning vivid naturalism to hallucinatory abstraction, and idiomatic costumes representing a broad swath of postwar Crescent City social strata. It lacked, however, lead actors of sufficient skill to represent credibly the passions and customs of their characters, or phrase Connick’s two dozen nuanced songs, or even sing them in key. Many critics cited Connick’s inexperience with or unwillingness to follow Broadway conventions as the main reason for this debacle. But it occurs to me that it’s the world that needs to catch up with Connick.

Maybe Connick agrees, maybe he doesn’t, but he’s diplomatic when I offer these impressions. “It’s very difficult to find people who can really sing and act and move on stage,” he remarks. “Would I have cast differently for the main characters? I don’t know. It’s give-and-take. This theater thing is a living, breathing organism. What if you find an amazing singer who really understands this stuff, but can’t act? Or a great actor or actress who just can’t sing?

“I wanted to act in it for a minute, but Stroman talked me out of it. I enjoyed performing on stage in high school, but I didn’t much enjoy the constraints. By then I was playing gigs in jazz clubs, which is a completely different way of thinking; as an actor in a show, you’re locked down, and with some small exceptions you pretty much can’t change anything. Playing a solo and doing a scene are similar experiences, though. It can be like going very fast on a boat through the water, moving forward, forward, forward, everything falling away behind you. If you can get to that very specific, special place, oh my God, there’s nothing like it. Acting requires a certain way of thinking about life and about the world, I think, in addition to having certain skills or inclinations to perform. A person who just walks off the street could be a great actor. But you need skill to be a jazz musician. However talented the person is, they have to understand the workings of it first.”

If Booker passed on to Connick a sort of Platonic ideal of how music should sound, pianist Ellis Marsalis and his sons — who introduced him to the complex tributaries of modern jazz — laid down the Aristotelian mechanics. “Wynton and Branford were five or six years ahead of me, and those guys weren’t messing around. They could tell in two seconds if you knew what you were doing. They’d come in and completely shut you down! I’d sit in with Wynton’s band, and during my solo Jeff Watts and Charnett Moffett would play the whole thing on upbeats. If you didn’t strongly believe that what you were doing was right, you’d go with them, and then they’d screw you up and get you lost in the form.

“Those guys were HARSH, man! They would verbally cut me down. I’d show up backstage, and they’d say, ‘Man, who you checkin’ out?’ I said, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been checking a lot of Errol Garner out.’ They were all into different stuff. ‘You sad, you can’t play.’ They would beat you up emotionally. At the time it was tear-inducing. But I knew they were being unfair, and I knew I was going to ride through that storm. When you’re in bed looking at the ceiling at night, you know whether you can play or not.

“Wynton’s approval still means a lot to me. I really wanted him to see Thou Shalt Not, and he called me after the show and quoted specific things I did with melodies or orchestration or whatever. That meant the world to me. I can talk to him purely on a philosophical level about the art, which thrills me. I know that he and Branford are listening to me and understand what I’m trying to do. I won’t say Wynton’s a big brother, but he is in a sense. He and Branford and Ellis are my” — Connick searches for a word — “family. I grew up with them.”

[BREAK]

Connick notes, “One thing I can do even better than anything I can do musically is hustle.” At 18, Connick moved to New York, took a room at the 92nd Street Y, and hit the streets, using every ounce of charisma he possessed to conjure gigs and persuade Columbia honcho George Butler to deliver on an oral commitment to give him a contract. Moving to Greenwich Village, he landed a weekly gig at the Knickerbocker, a well-established neighborhood piano bar, where he began to blend his predispositions — vernacular New Orleans romantic blues piano, the McCoy Tyner-Herbie Hancock-Kenny Kirkland branches of modern piano gleaned from the Marsalis apprenticeship, and a nascent appreciation of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington — into a recognizable, idiosyncratic style.

“Back in New Orleans, when Wynton was playing with Herbie Hancock, all I listened to was Herbie,” Connick says, with a short laugh. “Then I remember one day, around the time Monk died, Wynton came home and told me not to listen to Herbie any more. He said, ‘Listen to Monk.’ I didn’t understand it at all, but if Wynton was listening to it, I had to listen to it; I basically did what Wynton did. I started trying to transcribe and play Monk, and realized it was more complex than I thought. When I got into Duke, I started to understand my place on the planet as a piano player.

“At the Knickerbocker, since Wynton wasn’t around, I could play what I wanted. I started pulling out my traditional jazz tunes and my Booker stuff, which was very left-hand-heavy, and I felt, ‘Hey, this is home.’ I loved to play tunes by McCoy and Herbie, too, but I thought my left hand was dormant in the mid-range of the piano, and that didn’t cut it on a solo gig in New York City. I started studying the great left-handed piano players — Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and then Art Tatum and Earl Hines, who played a different kind of stride. It was extremely intimidating, because these people just did not miss notes. It was perfect playing. I never wanted to be less than that technically. So I practiced a lot. My technique got where I wasn’t even thinking; I was playing so fast that it was silly. I started to slow down after I started listening to Monk and Duke. Dexterity became less important. If I’m losing a crowd, I’ll play some stride to get them back, but it’s a trick. Now I’m interested in playing notes that sound right to me at the time. It seems that musicians in their mid-thirties start to become who they are. It’s liberating.”

[BREAK]

On the road three to four months a year with his big band, with large chunks of time devoted to film and television projects, Connick these days has scant time to practice his scales. He writes incessantly, a complete arrangement every day, relying on the sounds in his head and Finale music software. He keeps about 100 tunes in his working book, of which about half are original compositions.

“I’d be helluva lot better pianist if I practiced,” he says. “I’ve been blessed with a natural ability, and I’ve been able not to play for a while and then jump back into it.”

“Harry isn’t a great jazz pianist any more, but he could have been one of the best ever,” Branford Marsalis says. “To get back where he was, he would have to start from scratch, like he did with singing. He would have to play jazz more than sing, which makes no sense at this point of his career. Maybe when he’s 50, and has all the money he needs and doesn’t feel like doing that shit any more, he could start playing jazz in some little club somewhere, and then in another five years he’ll just kill people. The talent is not in question.”

Well, not to everyone. The Third Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD described Connick as “a rather pointlessly eclectic pianist; his solos an amiable but formless amalgam of Monk, Garner and Hines influences,” noting that “any good piano trio record will outdo” Lofty Roach’s Souffle from 1990. But Connick’s talent shines throughout 30, recorded a week before his September 11th birthday in 1998 and released last fall. It’s the third in a quintennial series documenting Connick’s evolving take on the solo piano function, refining a lived lineage that links him to such fin de siecle bordello entertainers as Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton. He commingles perpetual motion stride and modern harmony on “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” weaves dense angular chords through a Bookeresque prism on “Somewhere My Love.” He cushions a declarative vocal on “The Gypsy” with Ellingtonian pads of color, precedes an Armstrongesque chorus on “I Were a Bell” with an expansive six-minute duo with Ben Wolfe, his off-and-on bassist since 1988.

“When I heard Harry at the Knickerbocker, he was singing and playing a lot of stride piano,” Wolfe recalls. “I’d go to his apartment on Mulberry Street, and we’d work out these intricate, challenging arrangements. We played with a lot of exuberance, real hard, with a lot of swagger. The week after he hired me, we played the Bottom Line. Then we went on the road, to Blues Alley in D.C., a week in Seattle, a week in L.A. Then we recorded When Harry Met Sally. It was very fast-moving, very exciting. We played duo for about 18 months, and had a lot of fun.”

Springboarding off the success of When Harry Met Sally, Connick toured the country with Wolfe, propulsive New Orleans drummer Shannon Powell, and conductor-arranger Mark Shaiman, picking up a different orchestra in each city. The public responded, and Connick, armed with only a couple of charts from When Harry Met Sally, decided he might as well write a few of his own for a forthcoming world tour. “Man, they were pathetic!” he says. “I hustled the audience, made them think we had a jam-packed show of big band music.” Applying his customary persistence, he wrote all the charts for Blue Light, Red Light [1991]. “I’ve written them all ever since,” he says. “You learn.”

“Music seems effortless for Harry,” Wolfe says. “There are a lot of musicians who have perfect pitch and great ears, but he has great ears that are functional. If you hum him a melody, he will naturally hear the good bass notes. So when he started arranging, his brain would tell him the right things — good-sounding chords, good harmonic movement, good voice leading, nice melodies. He hears that way naturally, and that’s how he always played. He’s a complete perfectionist, real clear on what he wants.”

“Harry is not afraid to sound like shit for a while,” says Marsalis. “His early records weren’t very good, singing-wise. But Harry is a consummate musician, and he understood what he was doing. The only way to get good is to sing. I guarantee you, when he was growing up, big band was not in the picture. Singing was, but as a cute extension of his playing, not as a career. One aspect of growing up in New Orleans that helped him is that he’s a great showman. He’s charismatic — funny, can do a soft-shoe, can do his version of Louis Armstrong. So he’s very popular. And no matter how much critics wrote bad things about him, people continued to go to his concerts — which made him essentially critic-proof.

“He’s a student. He’s xeroxed it all, and now he doesn’t have to do it any more. His ability to write lyrics the way he does comes from years of studying the shit that he used to be criticized for! ‘Oh, he sounds like Frank Sinatra.’ ‘Oh, he sounds like he’s doing a Broadway movie.’ ‘He sounds like 1940’s retro.’ Blah-blah-blah. Yeah, and now what? Now he’s found a way to make that sound completely contemporary, yet be firmly immersed in the tradition. He was willing to say, ‘Damn, I can do this,’ and change his direction mid-stream.’ He bought old Broadway records and watched every old movie. Bring up the most obscure piece of one song from Guys and Dolls, and he’ll finish it for you. He’s a completely relational database.

“He did a record called To See You, where he wrote all these thoroughly modern, badass love songs. Nothing that sounds cliched, nothing that sounds like it’s from the ’40s. I told our manager, ‘This record ain’t gonna sell; it’s too good.’ I brought the record to my father, who never really approved of Harry singing in the first place, and he put it on. All of a sudden he understood. The light went off in his head and he says, ‘Oh, that’s what the motherfucker’s been doing.’ Then he called up my manager and said, ‘Man, Harry’s playing some shit now!'”

[BREAK]

“The whole Duke-Monk thing has been getting kind of old for a while,” Connick says. “I studied it, did the homework, and have my own perspective on where they’re coming from. I think it’s going to go somewhere different. I don’t know where, though.”

Connick hopes to find some answers by reviving his quartet, which will perform publicly the next evening for the first time in several years. “Last night we rehearsed for the first time in I can’t remember when, and it was awesome!” he says. “The notes were just flying out. The last time I did it, I was deep within influences, but this time I didn’t feel indebted to anyone. I woke up this morning, and I called my wife and I said, ‘I had a quartet rehearsal last night.’ She said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘The first thing that came to my mind is we were all smiling.’ It felt great, man! It didn’t feel like we were some young lions trying to go out and kick some ass, but just playing some tasty, soulful music.

I wasn’t going to heed my editor’s instruction to think like the establishment media, but Connick’s comment is too good an opening to pass up. So I inquire in what ways marriage and fatherhood has inflected who he is as an artist.

“One thing having kids did was make me think that this whole art thing is pretty silly,” he responds. “It’s less important than I may have thought. Which made me a better artist, because it wasn’t life or death. I’m enjoying it a lot more.”

Has marriage grounded him? Connick bristles a bit, interpreting the verb in the sense of “not flying.” “No, Jill doesn’t ground me. She’s just grounded. I don’t want to be grounded. And I don’t think she can ground me. What’s the fun of that? But she doesn’t try to do that. She’s infinitely stronger and more secure than I am, and highly intelligent. I’m fascinated by who she is. I’m still trying to figure her out. Maybe that’s why she still digs me. It’s a really perfect match. I mean, eight years is nothing, really. But I don’t see us going anywhere.”

Connick radiates such unshakeable confidence in his talent that it’s hard to imagine him feeling any insecurity of any kind. He demurs. “I’m as insecure as the next guy, and I think you can hear that vulnerability in my voice. Most people don’t present their insecure side in an interview.” That being said, he articulates his sense of place in the grand narrative with such transparent objectivity that anyone would think him downright arrogant if his deeds did not so palpably back up his words and if his manners were not so perfect. I ask him about the source of his instincts.

“I think it’s genetic,” he states. “My Dad is great like that and my mother was, They instinctively know what to do and say, and be truthful about it. I think watching my father give speeches… Or if I had to fire somebody and didn’t know how to do it, I’d say, ‘Dad, how do you fire somebody?’ My parents just understood how to do it. Not to say I do, but I feel like I do.”

Then he makes an astonishing self-comparison. “Young guys like Kobe Bryant are going to have their chance at being Michael Jordan,” he says. “I’ll have my chance. It’s not quite time yet. If anything, I’ve learned to respect the elders — especially the ones who can play. Like Ellis. Yeah, it’s Ellis’ turn right now. I’ll get my turn.”

“It will be your turn for what?”

“It will be my turn to walk into a room of knowledgeable people who are outside the inner circle, and they’ll say, ‘That’s the guy who wrote 20 shows and orchestrated all of them himself, wrote and conducted every note.’ It’s a time thing. In 20 years I will have done 20 shows, 20 more records and 20 more movies. I know that’s going to happen. Then it will be my turn to feel good about what I’ve done. But I don’t want to feel good about it yet, because it ain’t that time.

“When Michael Jordan steps out on the court, he pretty much knows he’s going to score some points. There’s no way to measure art statistically. But I pretty much know that I’m going to score some points. I say that as modestly as I can. Now, I don’t know if I’m going to have the opportunity to do 20 shows. That means you have to have some kind of success. That’s something I’m not secure about at all, is whether I’m going to be selling out houses or have a record deal five years from now.”

[BREAK]

Given the scope of Connick’s ambition, it seems improbable that he would ever scale down any component of his career to fulfill his pianistic destiny. “Let’s be very honest,” he states. “The most hardcore jazz purists still love to make a living. You can be artistic and inward and introspective and brooding — but it sure is a lot better when people are watching you. That’s just the bottom line. My first impression of music was smiling and giving people a show. It took years for me to finally believe that that’s really who I am. I played in contemporary jazz clubs in my teens, when I was studying music with Ellis that was not appropriate to play on Bourbon Street, and when a tenor player would solo for 20 minutes, somewhere in my head was this restless voice saying, ‘God, I hope these people don’t leave.’

“I know what the people are coming for, and I know instinctively how much to give them. And I’m playing jazz to win them! It’s big band with singing. They’re snapping their fingers and tapping their feet to notes I wrote, and some’a them charts are hard to play. Sometimes what looks like some lame Sinatra impression is a definitive instruction to the trombone section!”

Connick’s concluding comment is a tantalizing carrot for the hardcore purist in me. “I was driving around yesterday, talking to my Dad, and told him I was rehearsing with this quartet. That took him totally by surprise. He said, ‘You’re kidding. That is great.’ I wanted to talk about something else. He said, ‘You know, that’s what you do, son. All this other stuff is awesome and great, but you’re a jazz musician.’

“And you know what? He’s right. That’s what I am. I’ve done this for so long, and I’ve absorbed an unbelievable amount of history. I didn’t start in some high school band in Peoria. I started on Bourbon Street as a kid, playing with people like Danny Barker and other guys who played with people at Congo Square. I played with Eubie Blake when that dude was 95 and I was 9 years old. Buddy Rich gave me a drum lesson in my living room! I was talking with my producer about a three piano player thing with Mac Rebbenack and me and Allen Toussaint. I didn’t feel like a youngster. I felt like I’ve been around for a little while.

“I love everything I’m doing. I say what I want. I play what I want. I do what I like. And I give the people what they want. That makes me feel very confident and secure on the stage and when I go to bed at night. And I think people respond more than anything to an artist who is very confident. But at the CORE of it is jazz.”

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