Three centuries ago, the city of Nouvelle-Orleans was founded at a U-shaped bend of the Mississippi River in French Louisiana. This year, Crescent City native Harry Connick Jr. is celebrating the anniversary with “A New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration” tour, which arrives at the Mann Center on Saturday.
Ever since the soundtrack to the Nora Ephron-penned When Harry Met Sally…, Connick has been known as a big band crooner, as well as an actor in movies like Hope Floats, TV roles on Will & Grace, and Broadway revivals such as Bye Bye Birdie. He’s been a judge on American Idol, and though his daytime TV show Harry was not renewed for a third season, it’s still running locally at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on Fox 29.
But at heart, Connick, 50, is a piano player from New Orleans. The musician — who has three daughters with his wife, former Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre — began playing professionally when he was 5.
He studied under such greats as jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis and James Booker, the great gay, one-eyed African American musician. Booker became close with Connick when the crooner was a child, through his father, who was district attorney of New Orleans for 30 years.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Connick founded the Musicians’ Village with saxophonist Branford Marsalis in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. He talked recently on the phone about Booker, Frank Sinatra, Idol, and his undying affection for the city of his birth.
You’re celebrating 300 years of New Orleans. What’s the oldest song you’ll do?
Some of the tunes go back to the early part of the 20th century. You’d never know it because they’re structurally so sound that you’d think they were written yesterday.
It’s exciting because it’s a lot of different styles that I love. It’s traditional jazz and modern jazz and funk and R&B and gospel and all the different kinds of music that I grew up listening to and performing. It’ll change every night because there’s so much music to play. We’re fired up about it.
Since we’re talking New Orleans, can we talk about James Booker?
There’s a photo of you with him at Jazz Fest in 1978.
I was about 10. It was really bright, and I’m squinting from the sun.
You praise Booker effusively in Bayou Maharajah, Lily Keber’s excellent 2013 documentary. What did he mean to you?
First and foremost, he was an amazing man. A deeply troubled guy, but an incredible kind and generous person. And humble, for being one of the great musical geniuses this country’s ever produced. He was always striving to be better … So that’s what I took from him more than anything. His influence on me as a man.
But pianistically, musically, you’re talking about somebody who even now, 30 years after his death, people still don’t understand the breadth of this guy’s genius. … You’re talking abut a guy who was one in a billion.
He wasn’t just some drug-addicted, alcoholic, mentally ill guy who did crazy stuff.
On a very deep level, he was doing some things that had never been done before … You think about Chopin or Duke Ellington in black and white, as if they didn’t really exist. But I knew James. I hung out with him at my house, he was a friend. And to think that I brushed up against that is overwhelming. It’s incredible, incredible luck that I got to know him.
You have a unique musical persona. You’re part of this great New Orleans piano tradition of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Booker. And then you’re also a Sinatrian crooner. Where did the Sinatra thing come from?
It’s funny, because I never thought of it as a Sinatra thing. When you’re brought up in New Orleans and you play jazz music, there’s a repertoire from which you pull. That’s the Great American Songbook. It’s not only the New Orleans traditional jazz stuff. You also play songs like “A Foggy Day,” or “My Funny Valentine” or “It Had to Be You.”
I was born in 1967. When I grew up in the ’70s, it was all about disco and Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. But as a jazz musician, I played these songs, and when I got to be about 20, I was given the opportunity to do the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally… [Director] Rob Reiner picked the songs. I knew all of them because those were tunes I was familiar with.
So because I was singing with a big band at a time when nobody was really, you had to draw some comparison. A white skinny kid with blue eyes singing with a big band: You’re going to say Frank Sinatra.
Now, I happen to believe that Frank Sinatra was the greatest interpreter of that kind of music … But I came at it from a different angle. A lot of people wear the hats and the suits, and I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the best musicians I can find. He was the best, but so was Judy Garland and so was Nat Cole and so was Freddy Mercury and so was Booker.
I’m sure there are people who aren’t familiar with New Orleans music who come to see you but they love the big band sound.
The bottom line is that when people come to see me perform, 99 percent of them don’t know nor care about any of that stuff. They want to be entertained. They want to feel something when I sing a song. And that’s as it should be. For the 1 percent who can hear and feel some of the subtleties, its really fun to talk about it. Man, I could talk to you all day about Booker.
I never watched you on American Idol. How do you look back at that experience?
It was a blast. They knew what they were getting into with me. They knew I wasn’t going to sugar-coat things and I was going to tell people what I thought.
I was aware that nobody wanted to hear a music lesson on prime time television, but there were opportunities for me to say to these young performers, ‘Hey, this is what you need to work on.’ I wasn’t the judge who got up and danced after every performance. That’s just not who I am. Some people thought I was overly serious, but these kids are singing for their careers, so I thought they deserved to be taken seriously.
>> READ MORE: ‘American Idol’ auditions set for Sept. 6 in Philly
What’s the state of New Orleans almost 13 years after Katrina?
It’s come a long way. There’s still a lot of heartache that goes along with memories of Katrina, but in so many ways I think New Orleans has surpassed anyone’s expectations of what they thought it could be. It’s been back to normal for years, and it is in my opinion the greatest city in the United States.
Harry Connick Jr.: A New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration
- 8 p.m. Saturday, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave., $49.50-99.50, 215-546-7900, manncenter.org