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Home for the Holidays

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New Orleans superstar sensation Harry Connick, Jr., returns home to celebrate the city’s tricentennial with a concert to benefit the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

 

Musician, singer, composer, actor and native son Harry Connick, Jr., is one of the greatest treasures to ever come out of New Orleans. A bonafide superstar famous worldwide, Connick has won multiple Grammy and Emmy awards, and earned Tony Award nominations for his musical performances, his acting and his contributions to Broadway both as a composer and an actor. Yet with all of the impressive accomplishments and accolades he’s garnered over the years, Connick remains humble, down-to-earth and fiercely loyal to his hometown, paying homage to New Orleans every chance he gets. Connick and his band are currently on his New Orleans Tricentennial Celebration tour, performing songs in tribute of his beloved city everywhere they go. On Dec. 15, Connick’s tour will stop at the UNO Lakefront Arena for a special show featuring the music of New Orleans and Connick’s holiday favorites, and all proceeds from the concert benefit the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, the charitable endeavor near and dear to Connick’s heart that he co-founded after Hurricane Katrina.

“The tricentennial of New Orleans is a big deal and the show is going to be a big party,” Connick says. “One hundred percent of the net proceeds will go to the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. It’s going be really cool; we’re going to have pre- and post-concert receptions for all the VIP donors that I’m going to. The show changes a little bit each night, but, essentially, it’s a celebration of New Orleans music. I throw some other stuff in there because I think people might like to hear things from other times in my career, but we’re going to be celebrating many different kinds of New Orleans music, from traditional jazz to gospel, brass band, funk, R&B, a little bit of all of that stuff, and it’s real close to Christmas so we’ll play some Christmas music. It’s for an amazing cause, and there’s some amazing musicians onstage, so I hope everyone gets a chance to come see it. People can come out and forget about their troubles for a few hours and celebrate. Any chance I get to celebrate New Orleans I do. I feel I’m so indebted to New Orleans for everything that I’ve accomplished and become, so I’m really excited to play this concert.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Connick was determined to help a broken New Orleans in the most significant way he could, so he and good friend and notable jazz artist Branford Marsalis teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to create Musician’s Village, a community in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans that provided homes for musicians displaced from the storm. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, the centerpiece of Musician’s Village, came afterwards and provides opportunities and instruction in a positive environment for underserved children and youth to develop not only musically but academically and socially as well. The Center also features a cutting-edge recording studio, a performance hall, and strategic assistance and tools for Village musicians and those across the Greater New Orleans area to use to enhance their professional growth, and it houses a community gathering place. Connick has received a Redbook Strength & Spirit Award, an honorary degree from Tulane University, a 2010 National Building Museum Honor Award and the 2012 Jefferson Award for Public Service thanks to his post-Katrina efforts.

“For me, if you decide to sign up to do something to help others, you better be committed for the rest of your life because you’re talking about people’s lives, and that’s not something to be taken lightly,” Connick says. “So after Katrina, Branford Marsalis and our manager Ann Marie Wilkins decided to commit wholeheartedly to this project. The first phase of it was to work with Habitat for Humanity to help get some homes built to entice musicians to come back to New Orleans after the storm; we were able to get about 80 residences built with the help of the people living in them now. The second part was to build this big state-of-the-art facility with a community center, recording facility and classrooms and such, and we were able to do it. It took a lot of work and it still takes a lot of work. We take care of kids that are about 7 all the way up through age 18; we help them with homework, music training, computer training, dance, audio and video production, and we even do Mardi Gras Indian beading. And just because the immediate tragedy of Katrina has passed, we’re still working as hard as we can, and I think that’s the reason it’s successful. We have a deep commitment to helping our town and Branford and I constantly play fundraisers to keep this thing going; it’s expensive to operate and we want to give these folks the absolute best opportunity we can. We love it all; it’s a labor of love, and we’re in it for the long haul. I feel blessed to be able to do something, and I feel compelled to give back to the town that gave me everything I have, and I’ll do that for the rest of my life.”

While talent comes naturally to many born in New Orleans — Connick himself is proof of that — the musically inclined don’t always get the chance to develop into next-generation musicians who’ll keep the heritage of the city alive and kicking, and Connick is determined to give them that chance. “The whole point is to give them opportunity,” Connick says. “Ownership was something I never had to think about. My parents owned our home; we had NOCCA [New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] to go to; and we had an incredible legacy and musical tradition we could access at any time. But lots of these kids have nothing, so with the homes in Musician’s Village, these kids and the adults have something to call their own, and when you take ownership of something, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish. It doesn’t take much. It’s just helping people get pointed in the right direction, and, when you couple that with this innate talent that I think people from New Orleans have, the sky’s the limit. And Ellis is still at the helm designing curriculum for the kids, and he gives them a lot of pressure, so it’s both fun and challenging, because that’s the only way these kids can really live up to their potential. I’ve been around these kids a lot and played with them, and we just did two fundraisers in Chicago and Boston; they’re so bright and talented, and it’s amazing to watch what they’re able to accomplish.”

Connick’s catapult into the limelight began with him playing keys at age 3, performing publicly at age 5 and recording with a local jazz band at age 10. He studied piano under the tutelage of James Booker and later at NOCCA under Ellis Marsalis, Jr. He left New Orleans for New York at age 18; got a deal with Columbia Records; and, 3 years later, garnered multi-platinum success and a Grammy Award for his work on the When Harry Met Sally… movie soundtrack. He is renowned as a composer, musician and singer, and he has sold millions of albums. He’s been featured prominently on television in musical specials such as the Emmy-winning PBS special Only You: In Concert and in a recurring role on the trailblazing sitcom Will & Grace. He joined American Idol in 2013 as a judge along with Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez. His film resume includes roles in Copycat, Independence Day, Dolphin Tale and its sequel, and as the romantic lead in Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock. He earned Tony Award nominations for his work on Broadway as lyricist and composer for the musical Thou Shall Not and as lead actor in the Tony Award-winning revival of The Pajama Game. He had the honor of performing at two papal masses, in 2008 at Yankee Stadium for Pope Benedict XVI and for Pope Francis at Madison Square Garden in 2015. He sang the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXVI. He founded the Mardi Gras super krewe, the Krewe of Orpheus, in 1993. In 2016, he received an Honorary Doctorate from Loyola University in New Orleans and gave their commencement address. In 2016 he debuted Harry, his own nationally syndicated daytime talk show, which ran for two seasons and was nominated for five Daytime Emmy Awards. And Connick has big plans in store for 2019 in the world of entertainment, which he is currently working on now.

In 2012, Connick’s wife (actress, director and former model Jill Goodacre Connick) was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram followed by a sonogram, which is often recommended for women with dense breast tissue. She had treatment and has recovered. The couple partnered with Cologuard to encourage others to screen in particular for colon cancer. “I don’t think anybody has gone untouched by cancer in some capacity,” Connick says. “I lost my mother to cancer when I was 13. I’ve always done benefits for cancer research, and, now, Jill and I work with Cologuard, which is a noninvasive screening method for colorectal cancer. We think it’s a great product, so we go all over the country talking about the importance of early detection, because, even if you can help just one person, it’s worthwhile. With Cologuard, it’s unbelievable how much peace of mind you get and it’s so easy to do, so we’re trying to inspire people to get enthusiastic about early detection because it really can save your life.”

The Connicks live in Connecticut and are parents to three beautiful daughters. “We have an amazing family life; I love my wife and my daughters, and it’s just a blast,” Connick says. “We’ll spend Christmas at home just chilling out with the family, watching football, cooking, all that stuff.” What he misses most these days about New Orleans is what he’s always missed: his father, former District Attorney of Orleans Parish and fellow music aficionado Harry Connick, Sr. “I miss my dad,” Connick says. “We talk every day, a couple of times a day, and he’s the single thing I miss the most, more than the food, more than my friends, more than anything else. I left New Orleans 30-something years ago, and I go back probably a dozen times a year to see family — and go to Saints games and scream as loud as I can. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up back there one day. It’s the greatest city in the world, and I’m honored to call it my hometown.” harryconnickjr.com, ellismarsaliscenter.org, ticketmaster.com, cologuardtest.com