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Posted 06.25.18

Harry brings a little bit of New Orleans to the Berkshires

As a teen studying classical piano one summer at Tanglewood, Harry Connick Jr. remembers having been frowned upon for playing jazz. Not anymore. Saturday evening, the 50-year-old three-time Grammy award-winner and his longtime backing band will perform "A New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration" at Tanglewood's Koussevitzky Music Shed, where they last performed in 2015. The group will play a mix of jazz, funk, gospel and other songs from Connick's hometown,


By Benjamin Cassidy, The Berkshire Eagle

During his teens, Harry Connick Jr. spent a summer at Tanglewood studying classical piano.

"It's funny: I forget what I did last week, but I remember so much about being at Tanglewood," the 50-year-old Connick told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview.

Along with the smell of the trees and a crush on a violinist, Connick said he recalled lessons that didn't exactly celebrate his New Orleans musical roots.

"I remember being frowned upon because I played jazz and, actually, not being able to play in the final recital because I played jazz music. I remember my teacher called it 'devil's music,'" Connick said. "I ended up doing my own private concert at midnight in one of those little theaters there and inviting people to come out and listen to me play."

That instructor probably hasn't been involved with Tanglewood's programming in recent times. Connick and his brand of jazz have been frequent visitors to the Lenox institution since the turn of the century, most recently in 2015. On Saturday night, the three-time Grammy award-winner and his longtime backing band will perform "A New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration" at the Koussevitzky Music Shed. As with other stops on the tour, the group will play a mix of jazz, funk, gospel and other songs from Connick's hometown, but the set list will be improvisational and, by nature, exclusionary to some degree.

"If we played every New Orleans tune we knew, we'd be out there 24 hours," Connick said.

Growing up in the Crescent City's Lakeview neighborhood, Connick began performing as a vocalist and pianist when he was 5. James Booker served as a mentor during his early years; Ellis Marsalis offered guidance during his adolescence, according to Connick's website.

At 18, Connick moved to New York City to pursue his musical studies. Though he started to build his reputation by releasing a couple of albums and playing venues around the city, his big break came when he was tapped to play the soundtrack for "When Harry Met Sally," the 1989 romantic comedy starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Chock-full of standards, the album went double platinum and won a Grammy for best male jazz vocal performance. It also marked Connick's first big band performance, according to his website.

"I'd never played that as a kid. It was all about traditional jazz, funk music, all those different styles and more modern jazz," Connick said of playing with a big band.

Over the next three years, Connick released "We Are in Love," "Blue Light, Red Light" and "25," jazz albums that all went platinum. But he honored a different New Orleans sound — funk — in a couple subsequent mid-1990s records. Many fans and critics were not pleased, wishing Connick would stick to Frank Sinatra.

"In recent years, Mr. Connick has been a tuxedoed big-band leader crooning standards and a neo-bop jazz pianist," The New York Times' Jon Pareles writes in a 1995 concert review. "Now, touring with his Funk Band, he's a New Orleans rhythm-and-blues songwriter and singer. It's not his best format."

Connick bristled at the suggestion that he was experimenting during that period. After all, he said, he grew up playing funk. He believes that his success with the early big band albums created an inaccurate perception of his musical beginnings.

"You can't blame them for thinking that that's what you do," he said. "So, when you come out playing this other stuff, people say, 'Oh, he's turning his back on what got him here.'"

To the contrary, even if his music has often drawn from artists rooted in other cities, Connick has never felt disconnected from New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, Connick played an integral role in helping the city recover. For example, he teamed with Branford Marsalis and the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to create Musicians' Village, an Upper Ninth Ward community for New Orleans players and others who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

"It's a very important place to me," Connick said of the city.

He said he visits New Orleans every month or two, staying with his father. Making time for such trips is no small task for the prolific Connick. In addition to his continued musical output, Connick has had a busy career onstage and on screen. On Broadway, he composed the score for "Thou Shalt Not" and starred in "The Pajama Game," receiving Tony nominations for both. He demonstrated his acting range in films such as "Memphis Belle," "Copycat" and, more recently, the "Dolphin Tale" movies. And on TV, he starred as Debra Messing's husband on "Will & Grace." He also began hosting his own family-oriented talk show, "Harry," in 2016. The show will finish taping in September after being canceled.

"It's one of the great experiences of my life," Connick said. "I felt very comfortable doing it because, when I do a show or any kind of performance, it's very similar to what we did on TV, anyway. I was the only guy to have a band on daytime television. I was writing all of the arrangements and conducting the band."

The show aimed for positivity.

"It wasn't about politics or conflict, and it wasn't about trash. It was about doing a show that we felt very proud of. ... I was disappointed that my relationship with NBC and Universal kind of came to an end. That's showbiz; you have to expect that is going to happen at some point."

As for what's next, Connick isn't quite sure what his focus will be. But music is always top of mind.

"If you said, 'Take the next year and go make five albums or 10 albums,' I'd be happy to do it because I have a lot of ideas," Connick said, "and I'm always enthusiastic