Harry Connick Jr. has been a fixture in the entertainment industry for nearly three decades, first melting our hearts with his alluring tone as he performed songs on the 1989 soundtrack for “When Harry Met Sally.” He won a Grammy for his work on the album, and soon skyrocketed to fame, appearing in many films while producing successful jazz and funk records.
Connick went on to star in shows including “Will & Grace” and movies (“P.S. I Love You”) before officially joining the judging panel on “American Idol” in 2013. After “Idol” ended ― no, he won’t be back for the new reboot ― Connick kicked off his weekday talk show, “Harry,” which is still on the air today.
But all of this success doesn’t come easy, and the singer, actor and host credits a lot of his work to his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. Although he now lives in Connecticut, Connick says New Orleans not only helped shape him as a musician, but made him the person he is today.
Below, Connick Jr. chats with HuffPost about his experience growing up in New Orleans, the effect it’s had on him, and why those currently dealing with hurricane damage should stay hopeful in the wake of devastation.
Both your parents were lawyers in New Orleans, correct?
They were both in private practice until, I guess, the early ’70s, when my dad [Harry Connick Sr.] ran for public office. He ran for district attorney and was DA from 1974 on. And then my mother [Anita Livingston], she continued on in private practice until the late ’70s when she became a judge.
What kind of childhood was that for you, having parents in the legal profession and growing up in New Orleans?
Oh, it was a great. A pretty normal childhood other than the fact that my dad, especially, was well-known in New Orleans, so people would recognize him on the street and say hi. We’d be at the grocery store and he would talk to people, so it was sort of being in the public eye by the time I was a kid, but New Orleans is such an amazing place and to be able to grow up there with such great parents was really fantastic.
Do you have a favorite memory, or perhaps a first memory, of growing up in New Orleans?
I was really interested in music, you know, so my parents also loved music. The cool thing about New Orleans is it’s a residential city, but it also has amazing spots to go hear music, eat great food, and stuff like that. So I remember going to hear incredible music from the time I was really young, and I started playing with bands, sitting in with them, when I was 6 or 7 years old. Those are some of my earliest memories and some of my finest ones.
I’d say, arguably, it’s the most unique city in the United States, for lots of reasons, and it’s a place I’m really proud to be from. Harry Connick Jr. on New Orleans
Do you think your music career was sparked by the jazz culture of New Orleans? Would you have pursued music if you didn’t grow up there?
I probably would’ve pursued music only because I love it so much — I think that’s something you’re born with. But the type of music I play and the direction from which I approach music is definitely highly influenced by New Orleans, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the person I am and musician I am had I not been from there, so I’m greatly indebted to the city.
What are some of the music clubs or spots you went to or performed in that really inspired you and your style of music?
Well back in the day, we used to go to a place called Tradition Hall. That’s no longer there, but that was a traditional jazz club. There was a place called Maple on Bourbon, another traditional jazz club. Mahogany Hall, Crazy Shirley’s, lots of clubs in the French Quarter that played traditional jazz, and that was the first kind of music I played. And as I got a little bit older, there were some clubs like Tyler’s and Snug Harbor and lots of places where we would play more modern-form jazz, funk music, rock ’n’ roll — we’d play just about everything. It was an amazing town to grow up in if you’re interested in music.
Was there a certain person or fellow musician you met along the way in New Orleans who really helped you craft your performances or inspire you?
There are too many to mention, but the two that stand out are Ellis Marsalis, he’s still down there, he’s 82 now. He was my teacher but also just had an amazing impact on me and the way I play. And there was another fella, James Booker, who died when he was very young back in 1983, and he was a really good friend and just a phenomenal musician. And both of those guys are probably my biggest influences, musically.
What are your favorite spots that you have to go to every time you’re in New Orleans?
Nowadays when I go home, I’m really not home for that long so the first place I go is my dad’s house because there’s always something great to eat there and if we’re not eating at his house, we’ll go out to eat. In terms of, like, music spots, I might go to Tipitina’s, but normally I don’t really go out much anymore. I’m usually spending time with my family. I have a ton of cousins down there and we’ll usually go out to eat rather than go to hear music.
What are some of the meals you’ll eat at your dad’s house or some of the food you crave when you’re back home?
My dad makes a great gumbo, he makes a great seafood gumbo. And just normal stuff ― scrambled eggs and grits, just regular food. Sometimes we’ll have a crawfish boil, which is a nice way to unwind and celebrate with people. But it’s all kind of basic New Orleans food — it just tastes great and it’s fun to just hang with my dad and my friends and family down there.
How have you taught your daughters [Charlotte, Sarah Kate, Georgia Tatum] about New Orleans and the culture which you grew up in?
They’re not technically from New Orleans, but they might as well be. They’ve been down with me so many times — dozens and dozens of times. If you added up all the days, they’ve probably spent a couple of years down there. They’re very familiar with the culture and the food, they have many, many close relatives there that they stay in contact with. Over the years, I used to take them to different places that I used to go to and neighborhoods that I grew up in, and it’s as much a part of their life as you can hope for. They’re very, very involved in New Orleans.
We’ve seen a lot of devastation with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and of course New Orleans was hit badly by Katrina in 2005. How has the city changed since the hurricane, and what do you hope goes on in devastated areas after the recent storms?
In some ways, New Orleans — it’s a tricky thing to say out of context, but — we benefited from Katrina. It was horrible devastation and we lost many lives, and this is not to undermine that, but what it did was get a dialogue started about not only protecting our city, which I still think we can always do more of, but just how we value our heritage and the people who make up our city. Houston has been so badly devastated and it’s impossible when you’re in the throes of that to believe it will come back. But it will come back and it will come back stronger and better. People come together in times like this, and I’m sending all my prayers to those folks — it’s a horrendous nightmare to have to endure, but they’re going to get through it just like we did.
Did Katrina bring New Orleans together? Or is there something else about the city that represents unity?
In New Orleans, it’s all community. I mean, [the hurricane saw] people depending on each other to get through because that’s about all we had in the beginning. I have a project called The Musicians’ Village, which was done by me, Branford Marsalis and New Orleans Habitat for Humanity― raising money, volunteering and people giving very charitable contributions ― and now we have 80 houses and a state-of-the-art recording facility and community center right in the middle of the 9th Ward, which was the badly devastated part. That was done purely by community and we continue to do it based on the generosity of others. So, people like J.J. Watt who are doing amazing things — Houston is going to be fine and as much as the government is helping from what I see and read — I’m not privy to any inside information — all of that is in tandem with the incredible contributions being made by the citizens of our country and across the world.
Why or how do you think New Orleans defines America?
When you look at what America is, it’s a country full of immigrants. If you take exception to the Native Americans, everybody who lives here came here from somewhere else. What makes America unique is that it’s kind of the antithesis of the homogeneous society and, as great as some homogeneous societies are, there’s nothing that can replace a multicultural society. And New Orleans is probably the strongest example of that. The influences from Europe, from Africa, from the Caribbean, all blend together to form a culture that is like no other in the United States. If you think about all these great states and places and then you look at New Orleans, you realize, “What’s going on here?” I mean the music is completely different, the food is completely different, the people are completely different, and I say unquestionably — now they have some unique cities in this country, New York, the history is unbelievable, and San Francisco — but there’s nothing like New Orleans. I’d say, arguably, it’s the most unique city in the United States, for lots of reasons, and it’s a place I’m really proud to be from.
CORRECTION: HuffPost previously referenced Branford Marsalis as Brandon.