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It’s a steamy New Orleans afternoon and a young Harry Connick Jr., still in his crisp Catholic-school uniform, is waiting at his piano teacher’s home for his weekly lesson to begin. The teacher’s sons are pestering the little boy—messing up his hair, tickling him, punching on him.
The teacher, Ellis Marsalis, enters the room and inquires. “What are y’all doing?”
The brothers Marsalis, including Branford, who is telling this story, feign innocence. “Nothing—we’re just telling Harry hi.”
Fast-forward three decades. Harry Connick Jr. is trudging through murky, hip-deep water and climbing over bits of debris and fallen limbs to rescue a very old and very frail gentleman trapped by floodwaters on his front porch. Connick takes off his shirt and slips it on the man. Then he gingerly picks him up and carries him in his arms to safety, tending to him until an ambulance arrives.
The scene could’ve been from one of Connick’s movies. But it was all too horribly real, playing out in the late summer of 2005 after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters burst through levees and inundated 80 percent of New Orleans.
No commercial planes were flying in or out after the storm, but Connick talked his friend Bob Wright, then the president of NBC, into letting him use the network plane to fly into the region to help lend a hand wherever he could—delivering food and water to survivors, comforting and performing for the thousands of displaced victims.
Now, on the sixth anniversary of that killer storm, Connick returns to New Orleans to officially open the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. Named for his childhood piano teacher, the $10 million project features classrooms, recording facilities and a one-of-a-kind performance hall. The center—in the Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas inundated by Katrina—is part of the bigger New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village, a project spearheaded by Connick and fellow musician and boyhood pal Branford Marsalis.
Built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Musicians’ Village is a multi-acre community of homes designed as a way for the city’s displaced musicians, and others who qualified, to buy quality, affordable housing, and, in its own way, to help preserve the city’s rich musical legacy.
“Harry Connick is an icon in New Orleans and he has become a symbol of this tragedy and the spirit of recovery and rebuilding,” Habitat for Humanity’s CEO Jonathan Reckford said after the Musicians’ Village project was first announced. “Everyone looking for a ray of light, of hope, got it when they saw him walking through the devastated streets of New Orleans, tears in his eyes, confident that New Orleans will bounce back.”
Said Connick: “It is hard to sit in silence, to watch one’s youth wash away. Everything that I have professionally, and so much of what I have personally, is because of this great, fair city.”
Since those days of his youth, Connick has traveled very far—from his piano teacher’s living room; from the porch where he first performed for an audience, banging out the Star Spangled Banner at age 5 during his dad’s campaign for New Orleans district attorney; from the smoky French Quarter clubs where he played jazz as a 10-year-old with musicians twice his age. Since all of that, Connick has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, won three Grammy Awards, appeared in dozens of films and on TV, and earned a couple Tony nominations. He’s married to former Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre and has three daughters. The 44-year-old Connick has been around the world, yet never really left New Orleans.
Connick was born and raised in The Big Easy. His father, Harry Sr., was in the Navy when he met Anita, who was from New York. They shared a love of music and, after they married and were back in New Orleans, ran a record store. Later, they both went to law school. Anita became a judge while Harry Sr. defeated the colorful incumbent Jim Garrison and served as district attorney for almost three decades. The Connicks had a daughter, Suzanna, and then Harry.
The Connicks nurtured their children’s interests. Harry Jr. picked up the piano at age 3, and by 9, he was a member of the musicians’ union, had performed with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, was featured in a Japanese documentary about jazz, and was asked to join Buddy Rich on tour (his parents nixed that idea).
When Harry was just 13, his mother died after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. Connick told a Vogue interviewer in 1998 that her death “was a bad time for all of us. Horrific time. I just think it saddened us profoundly. I’m not over it. My sister’s not over it. My father’s not over it. We don’t talk about it much. It was unquestionably the most difficult thing. There was nothing that could make it better. You just deal, man.”
Sandra Bullock, who starred opposite Connick in Hope Floats, told the same reporter she thought the loss of his mother at such a young age contributed to his strength of character. “There’s so much history and pain in his life,” she said.
Connick says he’s more “childlike” as a result of his mother’s death. “I’ve learned to enjoy that part of my personality. It doesn’t consume me; it’s in check. But I’m extremely impulsive.”
In fact, Connick was just 18 when he left home for New York. His career took off after a month-long gig at the Algonquin Hotel in 1989 that garnered rave reviews. Legendary crooner Tony Bennett in the audience on opening night proclaimed “Connick could be the next Frank Sinatra” (an enduring comparison that led to his nickname, the Vice-Chairman of the Board). His next big break came later that same year, when he got a call from director Rob Reiner asking him to record the soundtrack for his iconic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. The accompanying album went double platinum and garnered Connick his first Grammy.
Connick parlayed his flair for performance—not to mention his good looks and throwback style—to fame on stage and the big screen as well. He made his acting debut in 1990, when he appeared as a World War II tail gunner in Memphis Belle. (It helped that his character sang and played the piano.) Parts followed in movies like Little Man Tate, Independence Day and Hope Floats, followed by a recurring part in the hit TV show Will & Grace. In each of his performances, Connick has held his own against a cast of top-notch co-stars like Glenn Close, Bullock, Sigourney Weaver, Jodie Foster and John Lithgow.
No stranger to the New York theatre, Connick scored his first Tony nomination in 2001 for the musical score he wrote for the production Thou Shalt Not. He later trod the boards in a revival of The Pajama Game, for which he nabbed a Tony nomination in 2006.
His desire to engage fans hasn’t always won him favor with jazz purists or the critics. “A lot of jazz musicians don’t like to please their audience,” Connick once told a reporter. “Because I might smile a little bit—which is something I’d do anyway—because I might get the people snappin’ their fingers, havin’ a good time, they don’t like that anymore. Now it’s not jazz anymore.” But Connick insists that just because an artist is entertaining, it doesn’t mean he stops being a serious musician. It’s just part of Connick’s persona—a personality trait that has, in fact, played a huge part in his success. “My parents used to say, ‘Smile, son. Make those people clap their hands,’ ” he once acknowledged. “So that’s how I am.”
It might seem obvious that the boy who learned piano as a toddler would one day become a musician. But not so obvious that he would successfully pursue so many other creative endeavors. In addition to performing and composing, Connick is an inventor; he possesses U.S. patent number 6,348,648 for a program that replaces old-fashioned sheet music with a computerized screen that makes composing much easier.
Explaining how it works, he says, “Before, I would write out a song by hand and give it to a couple of guys in the band who are copyists and they would figure out the instrumental sections. It could take days. Now I can write a new score in the morning and everyone has it on his computer screen in the afternoon. Imagine if a Duke Ellington or a Stravinsky had had a system like that.”
Breaking new creative ground might seem daunting for some, but for Connick, art is the most important reason—if not the only reason—to embrace risk and conflict. Only through that creative conflict come the breakthroughs and enduring personal rewards.
Ask Connick today about challenges or barriers, and he’ll tell you he simply doesn’t acknowledge them—not in his own life, at least.
When asked by an interviewer what music he would take if he were stranded on a desert island, he said he wouldn’t take any. “I think taking one thing to a desert island is succumbing to the fact that you ain’t gettin’ off! That’s not me, baby,” he says. “I’d be gone. I’d start swimmin’.”
Connick sees beyond what other people might perceive to be challenges—and he doesn’t create them, either. “I don’t know whether it is my personality or the point I’m at in my life, but I just don’t think of things as being obstacles. Whether it’s a family problem, an artistic problem, or a career problem, I don’t really get wound up, I just don’t. I’ve been there and it doesn’t do anything.”
He’s quick to acknowledge, though, that that attitude came with experience—and drive. “It’s selfish, really. It’s about how do I get what I want? Hopefully you don’t hurt anybody along the way and you can do it with some kind of diplomacy and elegance. That’s the ultimate goal. But really, it’s about how do I get through my life with as little conflict as possible? Because the real conflict comes with the art. That’s where you want to wrestle with things.”
Perhaps one reason for Connick’s easygoing attitude has to do with the way he grew up, and where he grew up. The loss of his mom certainly put things into perspective. But early mentors aside from his parents also provided encouragement and inspired confidence.
“I grew up in an environment where it was sort of understood that the older people would help the younger people,” Connick says. “I could go on and on about the people that helped me along the way. There is a certain kindness that people had in New Orleans. They were very giving with their time and information. I think that was because of the security that they had in who they were. These people were the best musicians, so they were always really cool, and just genuinely seemed interested in helping young people.”
“What other city in the country can you do that in?” adds pal Branford Marsalis. “In what other city in the country can you have a nurturing environment where an eight-year-old white kid is hanging around a band full of old black men and like, they’re digging it? They’re loving it. That’s one of those things that music can do. Music can unify.”
That’s one thing Connick and Marsalis hope to restore with Musicians’ Village—a sense of community and a safe, nurturing environment where elders impart their wisdom to eager children.
Connick and Marsalis, a saxophonist and superstar musician in his own right, conceived of the idea for Musicians’ Village after Katrina, while riding in a car on their way to perform for an arena full of hurricane victims.
“Harry said, ‘We’ve got to do something. Let’s build a school,’ ” Marsalis remembers of the ride. “But I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ And then it was well, what about this and what about that? Then Harry talked to our manager, and she reminded him he had a relationship with Habitat for Humanity, and that’s how it started.”
During the construction, both Marsalis and Connick have been back many times. “My family and I would visit every four months or so, and the euphoria of seeing those houses go up, I’d cry a little bit every time,” admits Marsalis. The moment he really knew what they had accomplished? “The day we heard the ice cream truck come through.” It was a sign, he says, they had created a real, cohesive neighborhood.
Connick, who occasionally wielded hammer and paintbrush to help with the work, says the goal for the site was to build 80 houses, “and we did. And now they are all inhabited by families, 80 percent of whom are musicians and their families, which is exactly what we had hoped.”
The centerpiece of the village, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, will house educational facilities, recording studios and a venue designed specifically for acoustic performances. “Very few places like this exist, with the exception of buildings for orchestras,” notes Marsalis of the 250-seat hall that bears his father’s name. “Amps and all that other electrical stuff won’t sound good in there. It’s an acoustically pristine environment.”
Of the classrooms, Marsalis says that “whatever anyone wants to teach will happen there,” be it jazz, salsa, rock or the blues. “There’s a fantastic after-school music program in New Orleans called the Roots of Music that’s run by local musicians,” says Marsalis. “They have been struggling to find a building for their program and they were the first people I thought of for the center. Discussions are hopefully under way to make that happen.
“I’m currently reading Bounce, by Matt Syed,” Marsalis continues, referring to a book that delves into the science of success. “And the hardest thing, whether you’re an athlete, musician, or whatever, is to get access to superior training. My hope for the center is that kids who don’t have the economic means, no matter their race, will now have that access. Because when large groups of citizens have no access, it’s not good for business. The system is screwing itself.”
Connick and Marsalis both had that access. And perhaps that’s why they were so eager to give back. “The city had a need, and we answered,” says Marsalis. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s the way we were raised. If anybody is to receive praise for what we’ve done, it’s our culture.”
Of New Orleans’ comeback, Connick muses, “It was just a matter of time before it got up and running again. And it happened relatively fast. If you compare it to other tragedies that have happened over the years, I think it’s doing pretty well.”