Harry Connick, Jr.’s Celebration of New Orleans’ 300th Birthday

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Harry Connick Entertains at the Hollywood Bowl

I actually toyed with going to the evening service for Rosh Hashanah this year. Maybe a little prayer for the New Year would help? Not the full monty experience just the evening service. Then I realized that if there was a G-d she would see thru my half-assed effort and scoff at my attempt to sneak into favor.

Simultaneously, I was jonesing to see the last show of the summer season at the Hollywood Bowl: A celebration of the 300th birthday of New Orleans with Harry Connick. Jr., Bonerama opening. I knew I could probably get tickets high in the tree top section, and when I say “high,” I’m not kidding. Those seats come with a free contact high. That section is referred to as the “smoking section” because of the abundance of reefer. Isolation from the bourgeoisie comes with some freedoms—but no matter where you sit parking is still $22. So I just kept dreaming and not doing.

Then, as if to prove the existence of a deity or the power of positive thought, I got a text from a friend who asked me to join them at The Bowl for the last night of the Harry Connick. Jr., show, which coincidentally fell on the eve of the Jewish New Year. The theatre has always been my holy place of choice and, unlike synagogue, the closer to the action the better. This wasn’t just a New Year’s present; it was a gift for all the holidays of all the religions put together. The seats were “Pool Side,” which is the very first section of private box seats with table service for dinner.

Named the Pool section because there literally used to be a pool of water until it was drained in 1972 to make room for more seats.

Mr. Connick got his “Had To Be You” moment when Rob Reiner wanted standards for the soundtrack to his film When Harry Met Sally. The Harry Met Sally soundtrack was a perfect storm; his sexy good looks, sultry delivery, and a Big Band sound that paid homage without trying to mimic. It made your grandma’s music cool. Since my grandma was the one who instilled in me my love for the Andrews Sisters, the original bands of the ’30s and ’40s were always cool to me.

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That soundtrack came at a time when swing music wasn’t on popular culture’s radar. It was fresh enough to introduce a new generation to the magic of those tunes. Harry won the first of his three Grammys (Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance) for that record. He was part of the catalyst for the Neo Swing movement of the 1990s. Mr. Connick isn’t mentioned as being a part of the swing revival but that soundtrack brought big band music into popular culture. The Neo Swing revival, as it progressed, became more jump blues but the popularity (double platinum) of the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack helped jiggle the consciousness of a younger demographic and greased the wheels for what would come. I was present and actively dancing Lindy in the “jiggling” 1990s and The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra—a right proper big band—was my favorite.

I admit it. I fall into a clichéd group of women who think Mr. Connick is dreamy. I can now say after seeing him in person his charisma hasn’t diminished as he crests his 50s. I knew the musicians on that stage would swing hard, and no matter what, I was in for a treat. Still, I wasn’t sure if Mr. Connick would win me over musically. Sure, I was close enough to potentially sit on his lap—ya know, if he wanted me to—but he wasn’t going to get a pass on the quality of the music no matter how much I wanted him to make one.

Mr. Connick’s band did not disappoint. His trombone player Lucien Barbarin comes from five generations of Barbarins that have made music in New Orleans. If traditional jazz had a royal court; Mr. Barbarin would be knighted. Leroy Jones on trumpet, also a very well-known New Orleans trumpeter, was equally regal. After Leroy gained notoriety touring in Harry’s band, he was then asked to open for Connick with his own quintet. Harry’s opening act for this concert was Bonerama—as the name suggests, a trombone-centric band with an emphasis on funk. The leaders of which, Mark Mullins and Craig Klein, were members of Harry Connick, Jr.’s big band from 1990 to 2006. There is a pattern here. Harry’s Jewish mother who died from ovarian cancer when Harry was only 13 would be kvelling to know her son turned out to be a mensch. I can’t say enough about the rest of his band. At one point the horn section was swinging their charts so hard I was poolside drowning in swing happiness. The sound up top can’t compare to up close and personal.

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There were other guests, most notably Jonathan DuBose, Jr.. a gospel guitarist that made that guitar sound like it would be more at home in the bowels of a blues club than any church. African American gospel music is where R&B got its foundation, so no surprise there. But that sound is pure naughty in all the best ways.

Harry Connick, Jr.'s Celebration of New Orleans' 300th Birthday
Harry Connick, Jr., delights the audience at the Hollywood Bowl. (photograph courtesy Randi Cee)

Now about Harry—since I was so physically close I feel like we are now friends. I think that the entire amphitheater felt that he was their friend. He sounded great when he sang, and he plays wonderfully. While he is onstage we feel like we are in his living room and part of the gang.

Whispering in the ear of Lucien and just having a good ol’ time, he said onstage that night, “This is all I ever wanted to do. I am so grateful to be here and perform for y’all.” There were many “y’all” bombs dropped during the evening if you were taking a shot of booze on every “y’all” he uttered you wouldn’t be able to drive home. His love of performing is evident in so many ways. In an interview with Variety magazine he answered the question of “do you primarily identify as a musician?” “First and foremost, that’s what I do. But you know, people ask what do you want your epitaph to say, and I would just say ‘an entertainer.’”

There is a genuineness about Harry; its feels real and it’s refreshing. Even the fact that he recognizes and welcomes the title of Entertainer makes him unique. Harry might be the only musician I have ever seen own that, have pride in it, and be grateful for the opportunity to perform. A three-night gig at the legendary Hollywood Bowl is proof of his ability to entertain. If I had one complaint about the evening it would be that I wanted more of just him. He was very generous with his guest performers. Before the concert I told my friends they might have to restrain me because I was close enough to jump on the stage and yell, “‘Bye Bye Blackbird,’ B flat!” One more guest at that point wouldn’t have mattered. I explained to my friends that even while partaking in a fantasy it should be calculated insanity. Of all the groups to play at the Bowl this summer, this was the only band that, in the split second before security yanked me off the stage, someone in that band might actually start the tune.

Dream, but have an eye on practicality.


Randi Cee is a bandleader and vocalist based in Los Angeles who specializes in swing and hot jazz. Visit her online at www.randiceemusic.com.


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