x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A rare voice: Harry Connick Jr

Ahead of Sunday's concert in Abu Dhabi, the jazz musician and actor speaks about his music, his family and his work to help rebuild New Orleans.

Harry Connick Jr
Harry Connick Jr

You can't make assumptions about Harry Connick Jr just because he's one of the most famous jazz musicians in the world. The jazz scene may conjure up images of late nights, smokey nightspots and fast women, but Connick is more likely to be tucked up in bed a couple of hours after a show so that he can get up early and go exploring. As for women, he's been married to a former model for 16 years. They have three daughters and that's the way he likes it.

Connick is also difficult to categorise as an actor, with his clean-cut, all-American-boy good looks that land him parts such as the thoroughly decent Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific or the tail gunner in a Second World War B-17 Flying Fortress in Memphis Belle. Then he pops up in PS I Love You as a man with Asperger's syndrome or in Copycat as a serial killer. He's also been in some awful turkeys, but, as he says, he just tends to go with something he likes rather than staying with safe parts in big-budget movies.

"Things pop up. My agent just asks me if I'd like to read a script because there's a really cool part in it. That's how it happened with PS I Love You. I met with the director. He's really smart and wrote the script so who wouldn't do that? I had never played anyone with Asperger's syndrome, so all of a sudden I'm reading books about it. Some people might think my character was just a forward person. To me that's so fascinating."

He also appeared in the television sitcom Will & Grace/i> as Grace's husband, Dr Leo Markus, and was in the box-office smash Independence Day/i> with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. "When it comes down to making decisions about parts, I just do things I really want to do. It's a great luxury being able to choose, but I make some really terrible decisions." "I've done movies like Excess Baggage or Life Without Dick. These are movies that I would not recommend people see but I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world. When I did Excess Baggage I got to be friends with Benicio del Toro. That was an experience I will take with me for the rest of my life. I respect him infinitely. In Life Without Dick I got to work with Sarah Jessica Parker and made a dear friend. None of these experiences are worthless. Sometimes the end result may not be as you intended but it's all about the process for me."

There's something refreshing about Connick, a star who picks up the phone at his home in the US and dials the number himself for our interview without a team of PRs and managers paving the way. The voice, with its distinctive Southern vowels, is friendly and interested as he says how much he is looking forward to visiting Abu Dhabi on Sunday for his concert on Sunday and how he is hoping to see something of the country before he leaves.

"I have never been to Abu Dhabi," he says. "It sounds exotic and I hope I'm going to have a chance to look around as I really have no idea what to expect." When he was performing in Australia, he brought his middle daughter with him so they could go sightseeing together. "It coincided with her school break and she would come and sing on stage with me. We would wake up at 6am and go cave exploring. I just don't enjoy going out partying every night.

"There are between 30 and 40 people in the orchestra, which is a very wide spectrum of personalities. There are the types who like to stay up all night and people like me who are a bit boring and want to go to sleep after the show. I like to get up early in the morning have something to eat and go sightseeing. Then we all gather at night and do the show. "I was talking to this guy the other day and we have a mutual friend who really likes to party and loves to be around women. I love being around women but not in the same way. I love my wife and my family, and for me having that fantastic reality makes the world so much more appealing. I can go to the end of the universe creatively and find my way home. I really love my wife.

"I'm sure that I would have created some pretty cool stuff if I used drugs or was promiscuous or an alcoholic, but this works for me," he says. Connick, a practising Catholic, married the former Victoria's Secret model Jill Goodacre in 1994. They live in Connecticut with their three daughters, Georgia, 14, Kate, 13, and Charlotte, eight. He credits various strong women in his life for his grounded attitude, including his wife and daughters, his sister Suzanna and his agent, Anne Marie Wilkins, a Harvard law graduate whose husband teaches at Harvard Law School - not the usual sort of agent for a front-line musician.

"They are just very ethical, academic, extremely bright people," Connick says. "My manager and I are very close. If I had my way I would have gone out and bought an Aston Martin when I first began to make some money and I wouldn't be talking to you right now because my career would have ended. She has me on a really tight leash and I happen to like that. All of the women I have been attracted to for various reasons have been very strong, like my sister and my mother and my wife and my manager. That's why that works for me."

Wilkins persuaded the normally diffident star to use his name and celebrity status to help raise money and awareness for causes that are close to his heart, such as the devastation to his native New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "I was taught that if you were going to do something charitable you should keep it to yourself and I always have. It was very hard for me to use my name. I don't like that feeling. It just felt very awkward. But I remember my manager, who I've been with since I was 18, asking me what I would like to do, I told her I would like to help cancer charities because my mother died of cancer. I was never into talking about it but she said: 'You have to talk about it because you have to help other people.'

"When Hurricane Katrina came along, we needed so much help that I would talk to anyone about it. And I still do. I have a moral responsibility to do it because it's my home. I grew up there." Connick distinguishes himself from celebrities who will happily turn up at a fundraiser and smile for the cameras with his commitment to the project long after the world's media has moved on to the next disaster.

On September 2, 2005, after Katrina had laid waste to his home city, he helped to organise a live telethon called A Concert for Hurricane Relief, then spent days touring the city to draw attention to the plight of citizens stranded in their wrecked homes and flooded streets. He was later made chairman of a long-term rebuilding plan committee that is still helping families that lost everything. One project that is particularly dear to his heart is Musicians' Village, which was built to provide homes for musicians whose livelihoods were wiped out by the hurricane. In some ways, many of them are better off than they were before, and the project has kick-started a rebirth of the musical traditions for which New Orleans is famous.

Connick and his friend and fellow musician Branford Marsalis set up the initiative, and Musicians' Village quickly emerged, with the construction of affordable homes and a performance centre as the centrepiece. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music was named after one of New Orleans's best-known jazz musicians, the father of Branford and one of Connick's formative influences. "We just started construction on this giant performance centre," Connick says. "There will be recording facilities, classrooms, internet access and it will be like a big community centre for musicians.

"This is a lifelong deal. I'm not going to leave the project. When you make a commitment like that it's not one of those things that you wear like a ribbon on an awards show to support the charity of the day. This is my hometown so I'll be involved with that till I'm dead." He talks of the project and the musicians who have been helped with passion, and it's clear that his involvement is very much hands-on and current.

"There's a guy called Smokey Johnson who is a well-known New Orleans drummer who played on a famous recording of a song called It Ain't My Fault. It's a real famous tune and what makes it so great is the drum beat. Smokey plays this inimitable New Orleans groove. "He had a stroke after the hurricane and the guy was destitute. He can't play any more because he can't use one of his arms. He applied for a home in the Musicians' Village and was accepted.

"You have to put in what they call 'sweat equity', 350 hours of work to build your own house. So Smokey spent his 350 hours hammering bent nails with his one hand and straightening them out. They were going to be thrown away and he was able to make them usable again. That was his contribution. "Here's a guy that was a huge effect on me musically. When I was a kid he was a god. Now he's happy as a lark living in a house that he helped to build that he owns. There are a lot of stories like that because musicians are not the most responsible people in the world. If I didn't have a manager I'd be penniless. Now for the first time the people in this village own their houses and don't have to pay rent. It just changes everything down the road."

Connick says that the old musical traditions of New Orleans were beginning to disappear because they were not being nurtured. "It's very hard for me to say it but some of these people are better off now than they were before. A lot of people died and a lot of people lost everything they had, but in the grand scheme of things what Katrina did was to open a lot of dialogue and a shed a lot of light on things that were really swept under the rug. If you can momentarily put aside the catastrophe and the devastation I think so much good has come out of it.

"The whole New Orleans traditional music scene was falling apart. I think it helped establish a dialogue about who we are as a people. Now all these musicians who live in the village like Smokey Johnson are going to come to the school and teach these younger kids, so that gives it a formal place for the traditions to be passed on. That wouldn't have happened otherwise." Connick, who grew up in the Lakeview area of New Orleans where his Irish American father, Harry Connick Sr, was the district attorney of Orleans Parish, says he thinks of himself as a musician rather than an actor. If he's not playing music, he's thinking about it and spends hours dreaming up new arrangements for his orchestra and writing new songs. He wrote the score for the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, starring Meg Ryan.

"I don't have a specific time when I write," Connick says. "I'm writing all the arrangements for the orchestra and that takes a great deal of time. I'm always writing new stuff because you get sick of playing it the same way." His musical talents were obvious at an early age. He learnt keyboard at the age of three, played in public when he was six and made a recording with a local jazz band when he was 10. He was trained in the classical tradition and performed a Beethoven piano concerto with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra when he was just nine years old.

Jazz quickly became his true love. He was taught by Ellis Marsalis and James Booker at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and later at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, where he was spotted by a Columbia Records executive and signed to the label. "I play both jazz and classical but for me jazz is more interesting philosophically. When you are playing classical the worst thing that can happen is making a mistake but with jazz it doesn't matter so much. You can't take a Beethoven sonata and start messing around with it. I want to play my own stuff and jazz allows you to interpret it."

One of his most treasured possessions is a Steinway grand piano that takes pride of place in the living room of his home in Connecticut. "The cool thing about it is that if I have great-great grandchildren they'll have it. It's such a piece of art." As far as his own children are concerned he has no ambitions for them. "The older I get the more I realise it's all about peace of mind and health. I couldn't care less who they marry or what they do for a living. I just want them to be healthy and happy. It's easy to be in denial as a parent but these are human beings and they'll do what they want to do. The only thing I would suggest, and I would only suggest it at their request, is just make sure you know what you are doing. If you are going to be a musician, know everything about it. If you want to be a piano player you have to know theory, harmony, rhythm - learn it all. If you want to be an architect it's the same thing. Be the greatest craftsman that you can."

When he steps out on to the stage of the Abu Dhabi Hall, he has no idea what he will play. He will just go where the mood takes him. "For me it's more fun like that. Of course there is a framework, especially with a big group of musicians. We have signposts but it's really just a framework. It all changes by the night." For the future, Connick, who has sold more than 25 million albums and won three Grammys and an Emmy, just wants to keep on playing. "I've got a lot more music to play. A lot more films, a lot more Broadway. I just love all of these aspects.

"I've played in front of huge crowds and tiny crowds. It's all good." Harry Connick Jr will play at Adnec on Sunday.