Harry Connick Jr. was surprised to learn 10 years have passed since he last performed at his hometown New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Granted, he's been busy.
He recently finished taping the first season of “Harry,” his syndicated, daytime TV entertainment show, which involved shooting six hour-long episodes a week. His touring band doubles as the TV show's house band. They'll back him for his 5:25 p.m. set Friday on Jazz Fest's main Acura Stage.
This week, he hosted a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala for his pal Wynton Marsalis in New York. From New Orleans, he'll fly to Los Angeles for Sunday’s Daytime Emmy Awards. On May 6, he’ll sing the National Anthem at the Kentucky Derby.
During a call this week from his home in Connecticut, Connick held forth on the festival, the secrets of his TV interview process, and how he overcame preconceived misgivings to record a song by a fellow Jesuit High School alumnus.
You haven't played Jazz Fest since 2007. Why was this the year to return?
Connick: Ann Marie (Wilkins, his longtime manager) told me that it’s been 10 years, and I hadn’t even thought about it. It feels like yesterday, the last time I played. I was supposed to play and it got rained out (in 2004). That felt like it was last year to me.
It’s not a question of waiting so long, or why this year was the year to come back and play. Scheduling it worked out, and it just happened. I’m excited. But it’s funny to think it’s been 10 years — I didn’t even realize that.
Without giving too much away, what can we expect to hear at the Fair Grounds?
Connick: I don’t have a whole lot to give away, because I haven’t put a whole lot of thought into it. I’m thinking that it’s going to be a diverse mix of things I’ve done over the years, from swinging stuff to funk stuff to stuff we played on the show.
It’s going to be tough to narrow it down, but it probably won’t be a whole lot of ballads, just because it’s a big outdoor (festival). It’ll be a lot of fun. The band sounds so good right now, and they’re all excited to play.
You’re not touring this year — Jazz Fest is the only concert on your 2017 calendar — but you and the band play quite a bit on the TV show. That must keep the musicians sharp.
Connick: They’re probably sharper than even being on the road, because they’re playing literally every single day, and it’s six shows a week. They play all through commercial breaks. We’re probably playing more now than when we were on the road.
Do you include any New Orleans music, or is it all new music that you write?
Connick: It’s all new, every note you hear. I wanted to make sure we had a pretty good stable of songs, so I wrote 100 before we started. We rotate those, and I’m adding new things. We keep the library growing.
Was it ever a question that you’d use your regular road band on the TV show?
Connick: No. That was one of the deal-breakers for me. The two things that I absolutely had to have if I were going to do it were shooting in New York, and having my band. Those were things that they agreed to immediately.
I was going to say that you stole trumpeter Mark Braud from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but technically you stole him back, since he was with you first, in the early 2000s.
Connick: I have a great relationship with that band going back to (drummer) Shannon Powell. Anybody that plays in that band is terrific, and Mark is no exception. He’s fantastic.
He sits up there with our lead trumpet player, Jumaane (Smith, who joined Connick’s band in January after a decade with Michael Buble). Jumaane is an incredible musician. It’s nice to see that healthy competition. It’s extremely challenging for Mark and Jumaane. It’s great to hear them go back and forth.
It doesn’t sound like you sacrifice anything musically in the TV format.
Connick: There was no reason for me to do this show unless it was exactly what I wanted to do. It’s demanding from a time point of view, so it wouldn’t do me any good to sit around a table with network people and listen to their musical suggestions.
There’s a lot of other things that I have learned, and will continue to learn, from the people in this business, because it’s a completely different world. But it was really important for me to be able to establish my vision for the music part. If it didn’t work, I’d go down swinging. So far, it’s worked really well.
There’s nothing like it on daytime television, on a nationally syndicated show that’s in 98 or 100 percent of the country. To see people playing musical instruments on that level is important, especially for young people coming up in 2017. Not only because of the musical standard I was trying to set for myself, but it’s important for future generations, too.
There’s likely no other daytime television show that will have New Orleans piano patriarch Ellis Marsalis and Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli as guest musicians.
Connick: That’s right. There’s a way to bring certain types of music to massive audiences. It’s possible to do it successfully if it’s done right. A lot of thought has been put into exactly how to do that.
When I started the show, people were saying, “Are you going to have all New Orleans music all the time?” You can’t do that. This is a national show. The people in Indiana don’t know who (New Orleans musicians) are, and they don’t care. They just want to have a good time.
You have to be judicious about how you present certain things. I’m talking about my music, too.
If those people from Indiana click through the photos on your web site, they’ll come across a Michael Smith image of eccentric New Orleans piano legend James Booker clutching the skinny arm of a 10-year-old Harry Connick Jr. at the 1978 Jazz Fest. They must wonder, "Who is that guy wearing the star eye patch and grabbing Harry?"
Connick: What’s interesting about daytime is that people really want to know the host. You’re in their living room, as they're doing things around the house. They want to know you. Which is different than a nighttime show, where they don’t care as much about the back story of the host. In daytime, it really is important to have a connection between the host and the viewing audience.
It’s fun to let people into my life, especially when I have such incredibly proud moments like that one with James. It’s fun to share that stuff.
Now that you’re an interviewer and not just an interviewee, do you have more sympathy for what journalists do?
Connick: It’s not about having sympathy. I’ve always understood what you’ve done, and recognized the importance of it. But I didn’t want to be interviewing people. It was always about a conversation. In fact, when I started out, I told dozens of publicists, “Tell your clients that I don’t want to do pre-interviews if they don’t want to do them.”
It’s my job to make them feel comfortable. I never really thought of it as an interview as much as, “Let’s have a conversation about what you’re interested in and what you’d like to talk about.” Which is slightly different from asking questions to get information.
I understand what it feels like to be asked questions. I also understand how things the host does can immediately impact the way you want to volunteer information. I’ve used all of that experience to formulate my own concept of how to do it. It feels very comfortable for me. Based on the response I’ve gotten off-camera from people who have been on, it works for them, too. It’s been a good experience.
Do you sometimes think, “This isn’t going well”?
Connick: What other people would think isn’t going well is sort of stimulating to me. I guess this comes back from playing jazz for so long. When I’m onstage and a string breaks on the piano or my voice cracks or somebody comes in late, those are things that would throw a lot of people off their game. But they actually provide more fodder for me.
Have I had people (on the TV show) that were intoxicated or didn’t want to talk? Yeah. But that’s all the more reason for me to invest even more deeply in the process. I actually like that.
It’s easy when Kurt Russell comes on with no pre-interview and just sits down and says, “Hey, what’s happening?” and we talk for 20 minutes. The more challenging ones are when people have absolutely nothing to say. That’s when the performer instinct takes over and I think, “What can I do to make this more compelling for the person sitting across from me, and for the audience?”
There’s no formula. It’s all about being present, listening to what they have to say, and responding. I like that challenge.
I interviewed your fellow “American Idol” judge Keith Urban in front of an audience at Jazz Fest’s Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage a couple years ago. He wanted it to be completely spontaneous. You prefer a similar approach.
Connick: A lot of times the publicist of the person coming on will say, “Joe doesn’t like to wing it, so can you ask him these questions?” Of course I can. Maybe they get nervous or they have a tendency to go off topic.
It’s the variety that’s so intriguing to me. Sometimes stand-up (comics) will come on. That time is for them to do their act. Some don’t respond well to me interjecting something that’s funny; some will take it and go in a different direction. You have to discern those things in real time, which is really fun.
It’s like if you’re hosting a party. All you really should be concerned with is that your guests are having a good time. I like that. For that hour of that day, that’s what I’m doing.
Songwriter Jim McCormick, who was a year behind you at Jesuit High School, co-wrote “(I Do) Like We Do,” the lead single from your 2015 album “That Would Be Me.” It’s good that you didn’t pick on him at school.
Connick: I didn’t know him. I’d never heard of the guy. When Tracey (Freeman, Connick’s longtime producer and Jesuit ’85 classmate) told me about these two songs (that McCormick co-wrote), he said, “He went to Jesuit. He graduated the year after us.”
Tracey told me that first (before Connick heard the songs). I was like, “Aww, man. There’s no way...” It was too close.
That was a terrible judgment I made without having heard anything. When I heard “(I Do) Like We Do,” I said, “This is really great. I like this.” The other song that we recorded but didn’t put out, “Back When You Loved Me,” was a really pretty song.
I was impressed. I’m happy that Tracey told me about him.
I would have thought you’d be more prejudiced against a guy like me, who went to Brother Martin High School, Jesuit's rival.
Connick: (laughs) If the songs had come from Brother Martin, I don’t know if I could have recorded them. But the fact that they came from Jesuit might have helped.