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Harry Connick Jr. had already released four albums by the time that most of the world was introduced to him in 1989. It was in the summer of that year that his cool jazz was featured on the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally, the romantic comedy starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan that was the year’s most popular date movie. Performing such standards as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay,“ alongside classic recordings by Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, he sounded comfortably at home on the same stage as those musical giants. Unlike those legends, however, Connick was not a ghost from the past, and unlike Linda Ronstadt, who had scored a hit a few years earlier with an album of lush romantic ballads arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle, he was not moonlighting in a musical genre that was not his own. Harry Connick Jr. was the real thing, a contemporary artist performing the kind of music that had never gone away, but had been pushed to the commercial sidelines for three decades by the musical revolution led by Elvis, and, later, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.
 

Since then, Harry Connick Jr. has always been with us, a jazz artist who has managed to achieve the kind of mainstream success usually reserved for rockers, rappers, and country singers.
 

He was born Joseph Harry Fowler Connick Jr., on September 11, 1967 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father was a district attorney and his mother a judge who would eventually become a Louisiana Supreme Court Justice. But music was very much a part of the Connick household. His parents had once owned a record store, the income from which helped put them through law school, and his father liked to sing. By the time he was three, he had learned to play the keyboards. At age six, he performed in public for the first time, and at nine, he performed Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 Opus 37" with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.
 

Connick attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts while also a student at Isidor Newman, a Jesuit high school. A practicing Catholic, he didn’t always think that religion and show business were compatible.
 

“When I was young I felt more tension between my faith and entertaining than I do now,” he told Christianity Today. “I realize now that’s silly. Part of the reason God put me here is to be an entertainer.”
 

Growing up in the musically rich environment of New Orleans where his teachers included the rhythm and blues pianist James Booker, and pianist Ellis Marsalis, helped to shape his developing tastes.
 

“There’s so much jazz in New Orleans that’s accessible,” he told writer Andrew Ford in 2005. “I mean you can be a kid and go and listen to music. You don’t have to be 18 to get into a bar. You can go in if music is the first purpose of the establishment. You can go in and listen to music at any age, and it’s fantastic. And I’m sure that’s what led me to being a jazz musician.”
 

Connick may have loved jazz, but he didn’t completely shun the music that was popular among others in his age group.
 

“Growing up in school I loved the rock-and-roll of Billy Joel, Queen and Led Zeppelin,” he reminisced to The New York Times in 1988. “I danced to the Bee Gees’ music from Saturday Night Fever, and Stevie Wonder was my hero. But although that music is very dear to me, and I am nostalgic for it, most of it I don’t respect as music.”
 

Later, he made his way to New York where he studied at Hunter College and the Manhattan School of Music. It was at the latter institution that he came to the attention of a Columbia Records executive who offered him a contract.
 

His first album for the label, released in 1987, was titled Harry Connick Jr., and featured mainly instrumental versions of standards. His second Columbia release, 20, gave him a chance to sing. Neither album sold well at first, but Connick was attracting notice through frequent live performances at venues in the New York area.
 

Following a Connick show at the Blue Note in March 1988, Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote that Connick’s “light, downward trickling runs often evoke Art Tatum, while his rolling righthanded melodic style suggests a less ornate Erroll Garner.” In other ways, Connick’s style brought to mind such masters as Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller, but, Holden noted, though “Mr. Connick is a traditionalist who wears his influences on his sleeve, he puts them together in a way that usually avoids mere imitation.” The critic also observed that Connick was more than a talented musician. He was a natural entertainer whose charismatic personality suggested he could successfully branch out into other non-musical areas of show business.
 

It was his music that brought about his entry into the movies, however. Director Rob Reiner asked him to contribute his talents to the score of When Harry Met Sally. Aside from the famous restaurant scene in which Meg Ryan demonstrates how she fakes an orgasm, it’s the film’s music that lingers in the mind more than the performances or the dialogue. While most films containing a song score aspired to top forty success by collecting rock and roll and pop tunes, When Harry Met Sally defied the trend by featuring the classy jazz sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong, as well as the music of the young and still unknown Connick, Jr. The soundtrack would be a top forty success regardless, achieving double platinum status, winning Connick his first Grammy for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance, and launching him to stardom.
 

Respecting his versatility, Columbia let him chart his own course, giving him the freedom to explore his musical palette rather than pressure him to duplicate past successes. So he was able to follow an album of standards with a set of his own original compositions, record a series of instrumental releases, issue a disc of holiday and children’s songs, and even a set of recordings he made at age 11. He wrote, arranged, and orchestrated the selections on his third album, 1991's Blue Light, Red Light, explaining that “I wanted to do a record in which I was involved as more than just a singer and a piano player, and so I decided to write all my own material and to arrange every song.”
 

With success came the need to deal with the media, and Connick soon earned a reputation for being brash and outspoken. In interviews, he characterized modern pop songs as “kiddie music” and MTV as “pornography.” Success also breeds resentment, and the press seemed intent on knocking the new star off his pedestal with a series of devastating reviews, usually labeling him a pale imitation of Sinatra whom they accused him of copying.
 

He didn’t deny his admiration for Sinatra whom he called “the greatest male singer of American popular song,” but he didn’t dwell on the knocks from critics either.
 

”I get terrible reviews everywhere I go,” he told The New York Times in 1991. “I don’t read most of them, but I hear they are pretty stinkeroo, which is cool, because I’m not doing it for the critics. I’m doing it for myself and for the people who come to see me.”
 

At the time he made that statement, he had four albums in the Billboard top 200. In addition to seeing him in concert, people could now come to see him in the movies. The New York Times’ prediction that he would find success in areas other than music had been proven correct in 1990 when he was cast as the member of an American bomber crew in Memphis Belle, a sort of homage to the flag waving war movies of the 1940s. The next year he taught a child prodigy how to shoot pool in Jodie Foster’s directorial debut, Little Man Tate. In 1992, did a guest shot on the popular sitcom, Cheers.
 

He was being very selective about the scripts he accepted, however, and found most of them offensive and at odds with his Catholic faith. “They have all that stuff in it - bad language, sexual scenes and nudity,” he told The New York Times. “I’m not interested in that. It’s got no class.”
 

The character he played in 1995's Copycat couldn’t be said to have class, but it provided Connick with his most challenging screen role. As a serial killer stalking a psychiatrist, he had an effectively shocking scene in which he almost murders the film’s star, Sigourney Weaver, in a public bathroom. Janet Maslin of The New York Times was impressed, calling him “scarily effective as a homicidal geek.”
 

“I still don’t know why they called me to play that guy,” he said. “But maybe that’s something for my therapist and I to figure out.”
 

In 1996, he appeared as Captain Jimmy Walker, a jet fighter pilot, in a brief but colorful role in that year’s summer blockbuster, the alien invasion flick, Independence Day.
 

Other films followed through the years. He provided one of the voices in the animated The Iron Giant, narrated the nostalgic My Dog Skip, took on romantic parts in Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock, P.S. I Love You and New In Town with Renee Zellweger, and appeared in 23 episodes of the long running Will and Grace TV series, playing Grace’s husband.
 

There were no Blue Hawaiis in his future, though. Music remained his priority.
 

In 1990, he released two albums, both of which earned platinum status for sales of more than one million: Lofty’s Roach Souffle, featured a jazz trio performing instrumental compositions, while We Are in Love was a big band album that brought Connick his second Grammy for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. In 1993, he released his biggest selling album to date, When My Heart Finds Christmas, which has become a yuletide favorite.
 

He turned to funk on his 1995 album, She. Taking the songs on the road with his Funk Band, he played New York’s Beacon Theater where critic Jon Pareles opined that singing rhythm and blues was “not his best format.” It was in his funk incarnation that Connick performed in the People’s Republic of China at the Shanghai Center Theater, a concert that was televised live. He followed this with a second funk album, Star Turtle, before returning to jazz with 1997's To See You.
 

Songs I Heard, one of two albums he released in 2001, found Connick performing children’s songs, including “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins. “I remember growing up in New Orleans and I would hear music like this, and it would make me happy,” he told CNN. “It was just happy music.”
 

In 2005, he was the composer, narrator, and executive producer on The Happy Elf, a holiday special based on a song he wrote for 2003's Harry for the Holidays, his second Christmas album.
 

2005 was also the year that Hurricane Katrina wrecked havoc on the South, and Connick, accompanied by fellow New Orleans musician Branford Marsalis, visited the city’s evacuees at the Astrodome. “We wanted to do something to help our city, but didn’t know what, given that we’re musicians who don’t know much about politics or social planning. We just knew something needed to be done.”
 

One of the things that Connick thought needed to be done that he could do was organize a telethon, A Concert for Hurricane Relief that he co-hosted with NBC’s Matt Lauer and featured such performers as Mike Myers, Kanye West, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. He was also named an honorary chair of Habitat for Humanity’s Operation Home Delivery, and with Marsalis, announced the formation of the Musician’s Village to help house musicians who had been left homeless following the disaster.
 

And the music continues, with Connick refusing to limit himself to the expectations of others. In 2006, he starred in a Broadway revival of The Pajama Game for which he received a Tony nomination. Despite having proclaimed that “I don’t respect people who are considered great because of their vocal acrobatics,” in 2010 he agreed to appear on American Idol, the talent show in which vocal acrobatics are often mistaken for genuine singing ability, as a mentor to the top five contestants. He also performed the Lennon/McCartney ballad “And I Love Her” from his current album, Harry Connick Jr: Your Songs. The disc was a departure of sorts in that Connick also covered Elvis Presley’s hit, “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You.” It was producer Clive Davis who encouraged him to record such pop standards.
 

“I’m going to die without ever having changed jazz music,” he once said. Maybe so, but Harry Connick Jr.’s contribution to this great American musical form has been immense, and he’s kept it alive and flourishing at a time when too much of the music blasting out of radios and MP3 players seems less likely to soothe the savage beast than to serve as one of his weapons.



--
by Brian W. Fairbanks
 



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