Q&A: Harry Connick Jr. jazzes up Wolf Trap with tribute to native New Orleans

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Harry Connick Jr. at Wolf Trap (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON —  From recording Grammy-winning records to starring in feature films to judging “American Idol,” Harry Connick Jr. has done it all in the entertainment industry.

This week, he presents a “New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration” on Thursday at Wolf Trap.

“We’re going to be playing all kinds of New Orleans music from all the different influences that I had growing up there and that I continue to have,” Connick Jr. said. “Some of it’s gospel, some of it’s New Orleans traditional jazz, New Orleans funk, parade music, we’re playing a whole bunch of stuff. … It’s going to be really, really fun. It’s kind of a big party celebration.”

Growing up in the Big Easy, he was surrounded by jazz music. In fact, before he was born, his parents owned a record store and ultimately kept their vinyl treasures to play for their son.

“They had a record store in the 50s that they used to provide income when they were going to college,” Connick Jr said. “That was long before I came along, but the benefit for me was that they kept all of those records and played them in the house. They were big music fans, so there was constantly music playing in our house, most of which was an influence to me.”

Which records does he remember listening to as a kid?

“They loved Frank Sinatra, had Nat [King] Cole records, Perry Como records. Then my sister who was a little older would listen to everybody from Queen to The Beatles to Zeppelin. Oh man, it was just music all the time. For a kid like me who was obsessed, it was paradise.”

Not only was he fan, he actively honed his skills at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

“I started taking it really seriously from an early age,” Connick Jr. said. “I made my first record when I was 9 years old, I started playing with the symphony at the same age, and made my next record at 11 years old. It was pretty obvious from a very early age that’s what I was going to do. I wasn’t really good at anything else, so it worked out pretty well for me. I wasn’t a very good student, I was a horrible athlete, so it was fortunate that I was so interested in music.”

His early training instilled a belief in the power of music education.

“It’s paramount,” Connick Jr. said. “There’s a lot of people who subscribe to the thought that music is primarily playing what you feel. I agree with that to an extent — it’s important to express yourself creatively — but you hamper your potential when you don’t know anything about the craft of making music. … People sometimes think that music education somehow lowers your ability to be soulful. It’s a crazy thing. … Music education is absolutely imperative.”

He won his first of three Grammys for the soundtrack of “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), as Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan fell in love to his crooner rendition of “It Had to Be You.” He was recommended to director Rob Reiner by Blood, Sweater & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, whose older brother Harry used to manage Thelonious Monk and saw similarities to Connick.

“He was working at Columbia Records and was a friend of Rob Reiner’s and said, ‘I know you’re looking for some underscoring for ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ you should hire this kid.’ One thing led to another and I ended up singing a bunch of songs for the film. … I know Billy a lot better than I know Meg … but they were both very supportive and just nice people for sure.”

He pivoted into acting as a World War II gunner in “Memphis Belle” (1990), a serial killer in “Copycat” (1995) and the Goose to Will Smith’s Maverick in “Independence Day” (1996). He got his first leading role as Sandra Bullock’s love interest in “Hope Floats” (1998), followed by roles across Hillary Swank in “P.S. I Love You” (2007) and Renée Zellweger in “New in Town” (2009).

“I had been doing musicals in high school and I loved it, it was just a matter of finding the right thing,” Connick Jr. said. “It was just a matter of finding scripts that I liked and pursuing it. Like anything, you can’t really wait for things to come for you, you have to get out there and hustle for them. I loved doing it, so it was a pleasure to go out and try to make these things happen.”

He moved to the small screen as Debra Messing’s husband on “Will & Grace” (1998-2005).

“That was great,” Connick Jr. said. “That whole cast of ‘Will & Grace’ was — and still is — among the most talented people on television. It was just a thrill. Doing a multicamera sitcom is a lot like doing a Broadway show because it’s live in front of an audience and you memorize the whole thing at once, as opposed to a film where you just memorize the scene you’re doing that day … Doing ‘Will & Grace’ was a great experience. That team is just a blast to be around.”

Fittingly, he combined music and TV with Fox’s smash reality competition “American Idol,” first as a mentor to the contestants, then as a judge alongside Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban.

“Being a mentor is fun. You sit around with these kids, get to know them, talk to them and try to share things that will help them in their careers. … Being a judge is a completely different thing because you don’t talk to them, you don’t get to know them, there’s no relationship there, you just sit back and objectively respond. … But judging was really fun. I did it for three years with J-Lo, Keith and Ryan [Seacrest]. It was a great gig. I mean, you sit up there, listen to people sing and tell people what you think about it. It was about as fun as you can imagine.”

Now, after his short-lived talk show “Harry,” he is back to touring the country with his music.

“I love performing,” Connick Jr. said. “We lay it all out on the stage. It’s such an honor to perform. We take it very seriously. When that show time comes, it’s like a gift to us. We love performing and trying to take people away from their routines and everyday problems for a while. We just want to entertain them, make them smile and let them forget about the world.”

Find more details on the Wolf Trap website. Hear our full chat with Harry Connick Jr. below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Harry Connick Jr. (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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