By Amy Biancolli
Updated 8:05 am, Sunday, June 17, 2018
Harry Connick Jr. loves creating. It doesn't matter whether it's music or acting. It doesn't matter whether he's doing it professionally or just for fun. It doesn't even matter if he stinks.
Sculpting and painting? "I'm horrible at it." But that doesn't stop him. He just likes making things.
"I just love any type of process that involves creativity — whether I'm good at it or not. I've always been like that. That's what I love," said the New Orleans jazz pianist, crooner, actor, TV host and apparently ageless heartthrob, who'll be performing a "New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration" at Tanglewood at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 23. "That's where my brain really feels comfortable — in areas where I can create."
Not long ago, Connick was visiting his mother-in-law Glenna Goodacre, the renowned sculptor who designed the front side of the Sacagawea dollar and the Vietnam Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. He was sitting there at a table with his wife, Jill, and her accomplished mom, "and Jill said: 'Would you give us a lesson in sketching? So we got us some sketch pads. And it was intimidating."
Intimidated or not, he sketched, and sketched away. "It's something I could have done all day for a week."
Connick was on the phone from New York City, and he did not have all day to chat. He had 15 minutes exactly. Occasionally with celebrity phoners, the interviewee will turn loquacious, let the minutes slide and ignore any interrupting publicist as the clock runs out, but not this time. Tight schedule. Busy man.
But Connick is always busy — always cramming it in, appearing all over creation in all sorts of guises. Told that he had performed at Tanglewood and the broader Capital Region at least a dozen times since 1990, he expressed approximately zero shock. This is what he does.
"I mean, if you go back that far almost anyplace I've been to, I've probably been there 12 times. You know, when you perform hundreds of concerts, you're bound to come back to the same place — though I do love it up there," he said.
He's not complaining. "Yeah, I mean, it's an amazing life. It's the kind of thing where you can go to a place that you've been to many times before, and you feel at home — but you also feel like it's a brand-new start. Like every time you get on stage, it's a new experience, which is a really cool thing." Others might get bored or call it a grind, "But I have never thought that. I'm probably in the minority — there's not a lot of people that think like me in that way — but every single time I went on stage, I've felt enthused and excited and energized. I love every part of it."
At Tanglewood, he'll be performing with his usual band of 11 or 12 members, "and we're gonna play all kinds of music," he said. "You know, the cool thing about my history, and New Orleans, is that we were exposed to so many different styles — from traditional jazz to modern types of jazz to R&B to funk to Mardi Gras-style music. So it's going to be a mixture of all things."
The Big Easy "is a unique place," he said. One major reason: "the fact that it's a port city, and it has influences from so many different places — from Africa and the Caribbean and Europe. It's just this amazing melting pot that shaped the music and the cuisine." It's also "a joyous place. We have our share of pain and heartbreak, but at its heart it's a place that loves life, and it loves visitors, and it loves entertaining."
So whatever he winds up playing at Tanglewood, chances are it won't be depressing. "It's just a very happy-sounding music. It's very collaborative — everybody's sort of listening to everyone else. It's also inclusive. ... It's music that's designed to entertain and bring people together. So I think that's probably why a lot of the people respond to it: because it just makes you feel good."
To hear Connick tell it — in his signature, rolling, medium-swing verbal inflections — pretty much everything makes him feel good, from crawfish boils to Broadway shows. But music holds a particular sway. Recently, he was noodling around at the piano with Charlotte, youngest of his three daughters – all of them gifted at music, none of them compelled to pursue it as a career. "The difference between her and me is that I would have stayed there for 12 hours — and she did it for about an hour and had enough. ... It's a very specific type of personality you have to have to spend all of your time doing it, and they do not have that."
Working hard – what's known in jazz as "woodshedding," or long and monastic bouts of practicing — was something he learned from his teacher, the legendary pianist and jazz pater familias Ellis Marsalis. As a kid he'd head over to Marsalis' house and find the great man practicing scales. These days, "He's maybe 80, maybe older" — 83, to be exact. "And he's still practicing. So when your heroes are constantly trying to improve — when you grow up in a culture in which the best people you know never think they're good enough, and they're always searching to become better – you know, it leaves a very strong mark on you."
He'll never stop making music. "An artist, or, like, a musician who discovers acting and then never makes another record? That's not me," Connick said. "I'm gonna go to my grave making records, because I love making music."
Does it ever get old? "Never," he said. "Ever. Ever."