High Notes

Photo by NBCUniversal – “Harry” – Heidi Gutman

Because of his singular skill as a man of music—crooning, composing, and playing piano—I have to remind myself that, in the course of his career, Harry Connick Jr. has proven time and again that he’s a very able entertainer in other ways. He’s had has some memorable acting roles, co-starring in movies like “Hope Floats” and “Dolphin’s Tale,” and on TV playing Grace’s on-again off-again on-again soul mate Leo on “Will & Grace.” More recently, his profile rose among a new generation of music fans, as one of the trio of judges during the final years of “American Idol,” holding his own alongside Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban with his playful wit and insightful, but demanding, advice for contestants.

That brew of musician, entertainer, and playful-but-sincere personality are the pillars Connick’s new daytime TV show, “Harry,” which debuted this past September, and airs nationally on Fox (locally, it’s on Fox5, from 2-3pm, during the work week). The show’s mix of entertainment is similar to what you find on many late-night shows: There are celebrity interviews often coupled with participatory fun and games; there are recurring bits of shtick and humor for Connick alone; and there are doses of amazing music provided by Connick and his band. But vibe is more daytime—less hip and cool, more playful and personal. Which makes sense if you consider that Connick, 49, is also a devoted family man; he’s been married to former  Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre for over 20 years, and the pair have three daughters, 20-year-old Georgia, 19-year-old Kate, and 14-year-old Charlotte.

I, myself, am a long-time fan of Connick’s, dating back to when his first batch of albums established him as a prodigy of lively jazz and soulful standards. I was especially devoted to the album “We Are In Love,” from 1990, which featured mostly original songs and won him his second Grammy for Best Jazz Male Vocal (the first was for his big breakthrough record, the soundtrack to the comedy classic “When Harry Met Sally”).

Harry Connick Jr. with his wife and daughters. Photo by NBCUniversal – “Harry” – Heidi Gutman

For older fans like myself, there are aspects of his background that are the stuff of music lore: How he grew up in New Orleans, where, from a very young age, he gravitated to the rollicking sounds and big personalities of the local jazz greats; how he became a protégé of Ellis Marsalis, whose own sons, Wynton and Branford, of course also went on to become famous musicians. But even though I’ve been a fan for a few decades, I really didn’t know that much about Connick’s personal life except that he came to New York City as young adult—where he did a semester at the Manhattan School of Music—and ultimately moved to Connecticut to raise his family. If his new daytime show becomes a hit, it will because viewers enjoying spending time with him and getting to know him a bit more, as I did for an hour in the middle of a day of tapings this past November.

As a fan, I go back with you a long way. When I knew this interview was going to happen, I treated myself to “We Are In Love,” which I hadn’t listened to in a long time.

Thank you. That was the time that I had just started dating my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I can still remember her coming to the studio. I wasn’t really concerned with anything but the music I was doing. It wasn’t trying to make the record company happy or trying to be a pop star. No one I knew of my age was singing that stuff, and I was so excited to share it with my girlfriend. And she liked it! And when think that she had never really heard that kind of music—she grew up in Boulder, CO, listening to the Eagles—it brings back a lot of nice memories.

You were in your early 20s at that time; that was pretty mature music for that age.

But that was our vocabulary. Those were the types of songs that we played as jazz musicians growing up. A few years before, I had started to think a lot about the content of lyrics. When you’re a singer, unless you’re playing party music or something, the lyrics are what you hang your hat on.

How important is music to your new TV show?

So important. In fact, the two deal breakers for this show for me would have been if we couldn’t shoot in New York, and if I couldn’t have my band. People say to me: “You’re doing this show now? When are you going to play music again?” And I explain that I’m probably spending more time writing and playing on this show than I do on the road. Every bumper that you hear is a bumper I wrote. We started with a 100 of them: That was my goal, to have 100 pieces of bumper music before the first day.

How did the show come about? Was this your vision or someone else’s?

So a few years ago, I met Justin and Eric Stangel, the brothers who were executive producers and writers on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” because we have the same agent. We worked on a sitcom together for a long time. Over the course of that relationship, we thought: “Boy, wouldn’t it be fun to take that ‘Late Night’ party atmosphere, with music and comedy and celebrities…and bring that party to the middle of the day.” Then we pitched it to NBCUniversal [the show’s producer] and here we are.

Being on a daytime show, does the audience interaction feel more personal than perhaps you’re used to? Are you comfortable with that?

I think you’re right, and I am. We did a show the other day—I didn’t know it was happening [and] they kept the basic details away from me—and it turned out to be a kind of “This is Your Life” type show. [Al Roker came aboard to host it.] And they brought out Ellis Marsalis and the girl I had a crush on Kindergarten and my family—my wife and three daughters. It was really a trip.

I saw that on YouTube—and it was amazing to hear your daughters speak of you with such affection and respect. As a father, I kept on thinking, this is where we all hope to end up with our children.

Yeah, and one of my daughters is away at school and she is very dedicated to school. So when I saw my wife and my two other daughters, and then they said we have another surprise, I thought the other daughter was going to be on Skype. And when she walked in—I’m an emotional person—but I certainly didn’t expect myself to be crying on my show. I just couldn’t help myself.

Harry Connick Jr. with Al Roker and Ryan Seacrest. Photo by NBCUniversal – “Harry”

You raised your children in Connecticut. Have you been a hands-on dad? An active suburban dad? Has family been part of the daily rhythm of your life?

An interesting thing to note is that I’ve been with my manager for 30 years… To this day, she continues to be my best friend, my manager, a sister, a mom—all of these things to me. And she has always known how important Jill is, and, when we started having kids, how important they are. So, she handles my life… She knows what I love to do, she has created this sort of insular world that allows me to be as creative as I need to be. It’s very fortunate. But she also realizes that family is truly paramount to me. So, how does that work? How do I go out on the road for six months without seeing my family? Well, I don’t. Before I had kids, I would do that. I’d go out forever! But when I started having kids, if I went to Europe or Asia, I would go for three weeks max, then I’d come home and spend an equal amount of time at home. Then as the girls got older, we’d decide what was best: Maybe I could take everybody with me, maybe I could go home on weekends if I was doing a movie, each situation presented itself with options. But to answer your question, yeah I was a suburban dad. I probably spent more chunks of time with them than if had I worked a 9-to-5 job. Family is everything to me. But I also have a family that understands how important my work is to me.

I’m still dazzled by the affection that poured out of your daughters. And they all seemed like terrific people. What did you do right?

My wife and I have the same philosophy about raising our girls. We’re different people, and not to say we don’t see things differently sometimes, but, fundamentally, we’re coming from the exact same place. I think about how my mother raised me, and I remember hearing stories from people that are older than me, like older cousins. They would say your mother always talked to us like peers, she would never baby-talk us… And I know how it feels to be validated, I know how it feels to have someone express interest in me… [So] no matter what my children were doing, you have to stop thinking about yourself long enough to really listen to what they’re saying. Am I perfect at that? Of course not. Do I get impatient? Sure. But we’ve always had an incredibly communicative relationship, both my wife and I and my girls. We worked hard at it, but I think that work leads to empowerment and self-esteem.

Given your life in music, did your children have to have music lessons?

Whether or not I was a musician, I thought it would be important to have some access to music lessons, just like you’d want them to access to athletics.

Was it a family requirement?

No, not really. But it was something that I wanted, that my wife wanted. It wasn’t like I was standing over the teacher as they had their piano lesson. If they were anything like me, they would’ve eaten and drank and slept music all the time, but they weren’t.

Photo by NBCUniversal – “Harry” – Heidi Gutman

Was it music that originally brought you to New York City after graduating high school?

I moved to New York for the sole purpose of signing to Columbia Records and starting my career. My two buddies Wynton and Branford Marsalis has signed with them a few years before, and that was a dream I had too. I had kind of done a lot in New Orleans and it wasn’t really going to take me to the next level. So when I was 18, I moved here.

I think my readers will enjoy a bit of local name dropping. Please confirm: You lived at the 92Y?

I did! Oh, yeah.

Did you play in any piano bars or other smaller venues before you broke through?

I have memories of walking up and down the avenues looking for establishments, bars, and restaurants for pianos. If they had a piano, I would go in and say: “Can I play?” And about one out of every 10, would say: “Yeah sure.” I went to the Empire Diner [on 10th Avenue and 23rd Street], and I worked there. There was also place on 10th Avenue [and 50th Street] called Robert’s. And the restaurant, Chez Josephine, which was owned by Jean-Claude Baker. Not only was he kind to me and let me play, he fed me every night when I was playing.

How do you view your career now, more than three decades later?

At the heart of it is playing and singing, and that’s always there. I don’t specifically know what my next record is going to be, but I want to continue to record, and I want to use the show as an opportunity to get my music out there along with the idea of what I think music is out there. Are we going to have country artists, hip-hop artists, and classical artists, of course we are. But the backdrop of all that is going to be these incredible musicians that are playing every day. Young people who see this show, they may not even think of it this way, but they’re hearing actual instruments, they’re hearing the results of people actually working at their craft to become great musicians, and I think that in itself is a big message.

To learn more about “Harry,” visit harrytv.com and harryconnickjr.com!

Eric Messinger is the editor of New York Family. He can be reached at emessinger@manhattanmedia.com.