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In 1989, the New York Times wrote this about a 21-year-old up-and-comer from New Orleans: "Harry Connick, Jr. may have what it takes to inject the world of traditional jazz with a shot of Hollywood glamour."
Today, that performer has Grammys, Emmys, Tony nominations and more than 20 albums to his name. Connick is no longer a kid with potential — he's one of America's most lasting entertainers. His latest album is called That Would Be Me.
"I wanted to have an experience with this recording that I've never had, which is not being in the driver's seat," Connick says. "There were things suggested to me that I may not have thought of, but nothing felt out of place. Although I may not be No. 1 on the pop charts, I think people can look at my career and say, well — even if you can't stand me — this is a guy who did things from an individual point of view."
While he was recording this album, Connick was also working as a judge on American Idol, a reality he says he's still coming to grips with: "Sometimes I look around when I'm sitting on the panel and I think to myself, do they know who they hired for this job?" Indeed, when he advises aspiring young singers on music theory and pentatonic scales, he comes off less like a superstar and more like an ordinary jazz nerd, eagerly trading notes.
As a child prodigy in New Orleans, Connick had a mentor of his own, the luminary jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. Connick says Marsalis was a taskmaster, who more than once told the young musician he should give up music entirely. And yet, embedded in that strictness were some lessons that proved invaluable.
"He wasn't doing it to be mean. He was saying, listen, if you're serious about being a musician then you have to be prepared," Connick says. "Now, this is a guy who brought up two of arguably the greatest musical minds on the planet today in Wynton and Branford Marsalis, not to mention Delfeayo Marsalis and Jason Marsalis. So, it's kind of hard not to listen to him."
Connick's new album, That Would Be Me, is out now. Hear more of his conversation with NPR's Ari Shapiro at the audio link.
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