Swing Shift 

Gettin’ that big band thing from the king of swing, Harry Connick, Jr.

I’m plumb sick of it. I just don’t want to hear another bluegrass band. And, no, I don’t want to go see that new hippie-jam-funk-rap-outfit from Portland in the bar so chocked with smoke even my fingernails sting. Are you with me?

If so, fellow Missoulians, we have options. Most notable is the famously suave Harry Connick, Jr.—you know, the one who did the music for When Harry Met Sally and played an assassin-turned-lounge singer in the movie Life Without Dick. He’s coming to town this week.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. He’s popular. He’s famous. He’s mainstream, dare I even utter the word. Get over it. He’s good. I mean, if you like swing music that’s as smooth as silk, as creamy as buttermilk, and as elegant as an Italian handcrafted suit.

Harry—can I call him that?—hails from the finest city of debauchery in the nation, New Orleans. You can taste it in his music. His big band sizzles like crawdads cooked in golden lager while his deep tenor vocals flow across the trumpets, drums and clarinets saturating the energized music. Ever sat on the bank of the Mississippi watching the slow river roll towards the gulf while sipping your final apple rum rickey of the night as the sun is coming up over the city? Harry has. He grew up doing that (maybe minus the booze at first).

Harry’s dad, Harry Sr., is a musician, too, and I think he still plays the clubs in the French Quarter. The younger Harry learned his piano craft with James Booker and jammed with both Ellis and Wynton Marsalis. He had his first gig at age five, played on his first record at age 10. By the time he was 18, Mr. Connick—maybe we should call him that—had his first major-label recording with Columbia Records. In 1989, at the baby-faced age of 22, he did the When Harry met Sally record, which earned him his first of several multi-platinum-selling albums.

His Connickness says he was meant for all this. We chatted on the phone last week; he called me from some undisclosed location. “Even though it was very exciting and flattering,”—I swear you can hear him swagger just by listening to his voice—“I’ve always wanted to be famous. My whole life was geared towards being a performer, and thinking like that. As modestly as I can say it, you almost assume that you will have people recognize you.”

Yes, yes. But what about the pressures of fame at such a young age?

“For me, fame was about the music, and when there were people out there that were better than I was, I didn’t have a lot of traps to fall into. All I was trying to do was to practice and get better. That’s what kept me on the straight and narrow.”

Narrow, no—he’s a fabulous singer, piano player, big band leader, composer, actor, and holder of a high-tech patent, which I’ll get to—but straight, as in an arrow, one might argue. That’s because he plays music for grown-ups who drink martinis and scotch and dress in clothes they didn’t buy at the feed store. If that’s being straight, I’ll admit, I’m curious.

HC Jr. is a crafty guy. He invented this computer software that digitizes sheet music for his band members. Instead of stands, they read from PowerMacs. Harry can make changes to a musical score on his machine and instantly zip them along to the entire band. The musicians can then flip through pages or bounce from piece to piece with one keystroke.

He just wrote his first off-Broadway score, lyrics and all, for an adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel Thérése Raquin. And he recently released an album entitled 30, named for the age at which he recorded it, the idea being to document that time in his musical life. He’s got another one entitled 20. What a cool concept. And the music’s good. vHarry’s an artist, like the rest of us. He’s just exceptionally talented, was discovered early, and marketed for the big time. His inspiration, like it is for so many of us, is internal.

“It’s being intuitive,” he told me. “And it’s the way you think about things. Some people who walk down the street and look at a tree only see a tree, but then the next guy looks at the same tree and sees some enchanted forest that he could go into and live and meet all these characters. I would tend to be the latter of the two.”

Yes, Mr. Connick, Jr., me too. Just, please, no “Orange Blossom Special.”

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