When Bibi Met Harry

Being that I graduated college with some grand yet extremely vague plan of making a living in Rock Music, the first thing I did when I got out of college was to get a job waitressing. Although I was mostly vegetarian, I ended up at this famous steak house in New York called The Knickerbocker Bar and Grill because they had great jazz every night of the week. They featured piano and bass duos, who would play these smooth sets – not wanting to blast the diners into another zone of music consciousness, but interesting and edgy enough that, on some nights, you did actually feel like you were at a real New York jazz place. I heard Ron Carter a few times.

In the beginning I had to work a lot of lunches. You know that joke where the waitress goes up to the table full of rich Jewish ladies and says: “Ladies, was anything OK? I just wanted to see if anything was OK?” It was that kind of place too.

At least I developed my ear while serving overpriced porterhouse steaks and reheating little old ladies’ decaf. I have never been focused on jazz one way or another but during this particular time, an angel flew into The Knickerbocker to work Sundays and Mondays. He turned my head around, but good.

I didn’t know I was going to get life changing, comprehensive exposure to the history of Jazz, New Orleans and American culture – delivered through the stories and piano playing of this very cute young white boy four years my junior. I was 24 at the time, Harry Connick Jr. was 20 years old and had just moved to NYC. He had one release out on Columbia – his self titled debut which was all instrumental, a collection of original tunes and classics like “Love is Here to Stay” and “Sunny Side of the Street” and Monk’s “I Mean You.”

So here he was, this kid, 20 years old. I couldn’t even have served him a drink if he’d wanted one. Playing the off nights at The Knick for $75 take home for three sets. On his break, I brought him a Coke and a cheeseburger. That’s all he ever ordered.

I had the Sunday night shift in the lounge and before you knew it, the rest of the waitresses were fighting to work when Harry played. It wasn't even a good money night. Certainly, he was signed and his label was making BIG plans for him, but word wasn’t out in New York about this kid yet. He had such moxy! He truly brightened up the place. You just wanted to be there. We started coming in when we weren’t working just to hear him play.

I imagine you probably think of him as a singer, a big band leader, a dashing movie star, someone who you come across in Nora Ephron movies. Now it is the year 2001 and he has done a multitude of things with all his various talents, he’s really had a fascinating career. I'm making no attempt here to provide comprehensive biographical information. I just want to tell you how interesting it was to watch him operate at that time, just before he burst out to the life of major stardom which has been his ever since. And to give you an idea of how inspiring he was, always.

This was 1988. First things first. Harry was a piano player. A New Orleans Piano Player. Personally reared by Ellis Marsalis and James T Booker. As a kid, he used to go down to Bourbon St. and do rasping imitations of Louis Armstrong. He was 9 when Buddy Rich invited him on tour. He sat in with Professor Longhair, Dr John, EVERYBODY – toured, recorded, everything - before he hit puberty. What he brought to that restaurant was lively, spirited, chunky, funky, creative, delightful, classic stuff from New Orleans. Just watching his left hand – with command and precision hitting those stride patterns...it was truly striking to see such technique combined with such a playful performance. He once told me in an interview I did with him at this time: “Louis Armstrong could entertain while playing the highest form of music known to man. That is what I aspire to.”

Harry had none of the dead serious jazz vibe even when he was doing Monk or something intense like that! He would plunge into it, made it a delightful exploration. He brought American music history into our lives, and his enthusiasm pulled us right in. None of us were particularly walking around considering the genius of Harold Arlen or Errol Garner. But Harry would come in fully beaming and exclaiming: “Bibi, have you listened to the songs of Harold Arlen?!! The guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz? The man was a genius songwriter! You've GOT to check it out!!”

Then later that night he’d burst into “If I Only Had a Brain”,“I could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain.” Part irreverent kid, part burgeoning jazz master, all entertainer. He recorded this song on his second release but in a much slower tempo. The time I remember he did it really upbeat—a boogie-woogie version—while retaining all the beauty of the piece.

He was a sharp, clever, worldly and yes, disturbingly handsome kid. And a kid he was. Between sets he’d strike up conversations about race cars, sports, the latest spy technology, that kind of thing. Even on his 21st Birthday, a night I worked, he did not drink. It was the furthest thing from his mind. I respected that so much in him. There was none of this genius-headed for disaster-seductive-cool threat about him. I was fascinated by how together he was, internally. Forget the fast track: this kid wasn’t going to be distracted by ANYTHING. It was like beholding a piece of machinery perfectly structured and designed to handle a specific job, or watching an animal effortlessly move in the groove of whatever it is doing. His whole being was in perfect co-ordination with his mission. He was going to be an extremely successful performer, no discussion necessary. We all knew he wasn’t going to stay around The Knickerbocker. Towards the end he had management, a booking company, plans in place to tour Europe, Australia and Japan, and another record coming out soon. Once he told me he had dinner with Tommy Mottola just the night prior, who was as enamored as we were, giving him all the unconditional support he could imagine and creative carte blanche on Columbia Records for many releases to come...Promotional budgets previously unheard of in jazz were in place to launch of the career of Harry Connick Jr....

“With the thoughts I’d be thinking I could be another Lincoln If I Only Had a Brain.”

I remember serving a table of six, walking over with their drinks on a tray – and stopped in the middle of the dining room because Harry was playing some solo that literally stopped me in my tracks! I went over to the table, completely forgot what everyone ordered and just blurted out most unprofessionally, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what he did?”

“And my head I’d be scratching while my thoughts were busy hatching if I Only Had a Brain...”

I still have the New York Times half-page piece on the emerging young jazz genius, and Stephen Holden says it perfectly: “At 21, Harry Connick Jr may have what it takes to inject traditional jazz with glamour?” Yes, he did just that. And his presence was infectious. He was an extremely charming young man – southern and everything! I wanted to write about him before the whole world got around to it. I had a story published in SPIN Magazine and one longer, better one in the now defunct “City Week” It’s printed below. When Harry read it he said I should be writing his liner notes!

“I would not be just a nothin’, my head all full of stuffin, my heart all full of pain...”

I found the tape of the interview that preceded my article and in listening now, am still struck by his genuine humility, his purity and his dedication. At this time he had recorded vocals on his album titled “20”. Everyone was comparing him to Frank Sinatra. I asked him what he thought of that and he answered in his classic southern accent : “Now don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered-but I'm not a singer. I’m a Piano player. That’s what I am.” He talks about the difficulty of playing jazz. He traces the evolution of his musical esthetic backward from Monk through Ellington to Armstrong. His high minded jazz puritanism is no doubt inspired and fueled by The Marsalis clan, who Harry studied and grew up with (Wynton even came and graced us with a spontaneous jam one night after closing – my kind of perk!). He tells me even if he dedicated his whole life exclusively to the playing of jazz, he will only after 30 years or so begun to have contributed something to the tradition.

But we loved his Aiko Aiko! My grandma and your grandma...sitting by the fire...

“When I first came to The Knickerbocker I was so embarrassed,” he tells me, “I didn’t think that New Orleans stuff was hip - I thought I had to be like the New York piano players. But on this gig I started trying some stuff out, that people really got a kick out of. That's the stuff I grew up playing.” Then he says “If I start playing some R&B, boogie woogie or whatever, it’s ’cause I need to rest! It’s hard work playing jazz, I’m thinking about every note. So I play some easy stuff to take a break!”

Last I heard him was a the voice of a character on The Iron Giant while I was watching with my nephew. I said, “I know that boy – the guy doing that voice.” and my nephew said, “You know him? Where is he?”

I don’t know. I have no idea.

I have not really followed his every move, because...well you know how it is when you “knew them when...” A year or so of intimate gigs, his rollicking left hand, right there less than 10 feet away from me all night, every Sunday...I didn’t rush to buy his big band records. I don’t follow his acting career. I don’t know the name of his beautiful model wife. I remember his old girlfriend Mary Ruth so fondly, was even invited to their apartment one night. He already gave me everything I need: he woke up my ear to jazz. He made it FUN. In every performance he filled the room with respect for the American Tradition. He woke me up to all the songwriting that came before rock & roll. He brought this music down and dusted it off for mine and younger generations. He instilled in me a permanent appreciation of New Orleans. I went down there three times, twice to Jazz Fest, just because he turned me on to the whole thing! I bought jazz records and studied voice for once. Harry is a performer so classic, so universal, so intergenerational – I always hold him up as my personal example of one of the most honorable and deeply dedicated musicians I know.

“I could think of things I never thunk before.”

Here’s a comprehensive web site on him. www.hconnickjr.com But listen, if you're going to buy one of his cds, buy that first on he did just called Harry Connnick Jr. from 1987. It’s all piano.

Harry Connick Jr.’s music is charming, playful and spirited.
City Week September 12, 1988

By Bibi Farber

Twenty year old Harry Connick Jr. from New Orleans is about to make a splash. With his second CBS release, titled “20” due out in the fall, he is coming into focus as one of the major figures in the generation of young jazz performers. But what we have here is not just another piano virtuoso. Connick is fun, accessible and he has plenty of class.

As a child of seven, he was sitting in with Dixieland groups on Bourbon sty. At ten he was the protégé of the city’s native piano wizard, James T Booker. Within the last twenty months he has toured with old buddy Lionel Hampton, done a solo tour to promote his own album, opened up for Stan Getz, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, and Al Jarreau and still made time for an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

The ripples turn to waves when he plays the piano. It can begin with a charming, playful and spirited rendition of “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Next thing you know he starts tossing around some unorthodox vocal variations. His left hand gallops into a powerful swing bass pattern, while his right dances gracefully and effortlessly along. Connick maintains the classic beauty of the tune even while throwing rhythmic curveballs, just to see if you’re paying attention! Relax, the fun has just begun.

Always absorbing nourishment from the Great American Jazz Tradition he grew up on, Connick is developing a distinct style of his own. The ingredients go something like this: start in Harlem with the stride piano style, a la Fats Waller. Throw in some 20s and 30s influences like Errol Garner and Art Tatum. Check your New Orleans spice rack and measure liberal doses of boogie woogie, ragtime, Professor Longhair, and the blues. Garnish with some serious influences of America's foremost composers from such diverse directions as Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin. Rhythmically, Connick's personal signature on all this is especially interesting. He blends sources like the traditional New Orleans Second Line (the Mardi Gras march patterns) with modern polyryhthms, kicking alot of material into fresh gear.

Connick does unique vocal interpretations, addressing songbooks of the heroes of American Popular Song. In one night, you'll get Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and then some.

The debut album titled Harry Connick Jr. features strictly jazz piano, including several original compositions. On “20” we hear the song stylist go to work. Among other selections, Connick does “If I only had a Brain” from the Wizard of Oz, “Do You Know What it Means to miss New Orleans?” and a duet with Carmen McRae in “Please Don’t Talk about me When I’m Gone.” “I met Carmen at a club in Virginia called The Wolftrap after a gig,” Connick recalls. “She said ‘Boy you were singing your ass off!’ I was a little nervous but asked her if she would be interested in singing on the record. She said ‘sure but why me?’ Because you’re Carmen McRae!” The two exchanged numbers and recording dates were set. Dr John is another guest star on 20, produced by Kevin Blanq. Connick's youthful energy hovers between playfulness and intensity. There is also a mature depth to his music and an unpretentious integrity that in this age is an anachronism. Every Sunday and Monday night you can hear Harry Connick Jr. at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill on 9th St and University Place. You can bring your date, parents, grandparents or children. You can bring a hard core jazz fan or a computer nerd. They will all be entertained, because Connick is more than a brilliant musician – he’s fun.