Last night I climbed into my beater ’89 Honda Accord and drove across Atlanta to see Harry Connick, Jr.’s performance at Chastain Park Amphitheatre. The dark underbelly of the Chastain experience involves getting within a mile or so of the park, at which point you begrudgingly join the crawling single-file motorcade of luxury cars in search of parking. Bad traffic, the great equalizer, a pox blighting the moods of Lexus- and Honda-owners alike. A mere 45 minutes later, once the idea of parking proved more than just a hypothetical, I finally tramped the final stretch toward the amphitheatre, in a foul mood, determined to hate all things Harry. The party had started without me, but I could already catch the distant brassy squall of Connick’s accompanying big band, which sounded downright elephantine, even from 100 yards outside the amphitheatre.
“He’s on his fifth song,” the gate attendant volunteered as she held out the remaining portion of my freshly ripped ticket stub. “Thanks,” I replied, my mind clouding up with profanity. A few moments later, after shuffling down the spacious aisle to seat #35—apologizing every few seconds for obstructing the view of posh silver-haired gentlemen and their pink-shirted, Ann Taylor-clad spouses, many of whom were refilling wine glasses with Cabernet Sauvignon and picking at spinach salads spread out on small candle-lit, cloth-covered tables (or the odd Igloo cooler)—I slumped down and turned my attention toward the stage. Off in the distance, a speck I took on faith to be Harry Connick, Jr. hunched reverently over a grand piano, bobbing his head like a pious man praying (perhaps he was, in his own fashion), fingers dancing feverishly up and down the ivory keys.
My dour mood sufficiently bathed in song and now glistening faintly around the edges, I settled into my seat while the darkening sky, having apparently soaked up my previous frustration, sent scattered drops onto the heads of the enormous crowd packed into the sloping amphitheatre. But this man on stage, this 36-year-old jazz crooner, consummate entertainer and quintessential fantasy partner of bored American housewives, seemed unfazed by the inclement weather, leading his band charismatically through one swinging big-band chart after another. Every so often, a saxophone or trumpet or trombone soloist would amble toward the stage apron and launch into a wild, inspired, blistering run of notes that left the crowd screaming like Holy Spirit-filled Beatlemaniacs. My personal favorite was the tenor sax soloist who, while honking and squealing in bouts of improvisational ecstasy, strutted across the stage alternately hunched over like some demented musical Quasimodo and reared straight-backed and stiff like rigor mortis had settled in prematurely.
Connick would not be upstaged, however, working the 7,000-person crowd as effortlessly as one of the much smaller New York hotspots at which he performed regularly in the late ‘80s after relocating from New Orleans to the Big Apple. When he wasn’t pimping his newest CD, Only You, a collection of standards from the ’50s and ’60s (“The president of my record label asked me to record an album of songs from his generation. What could I do? Say no?”) he was busy sending the crowd into paroxysms of laughter, riffing with mildly affected lisp—an obvious self-parody—on the metrosexual leanings of a nearby Atlanta mall where he’d purchased a $400 Gucci shirt the previous afternoon for tonight’s concert.
He frequently approached the foot of the stage, schmoozing good-naturedly and mugging for pictures with people who held ticket stubs so expensive they might as well have had Gucci tags hanging from them. At one point, he asked a group of pre-pubescent girls in the front row mock-defensively, “Do you even know who I am?” and then responded for them (with a slightly more exaggerated lisp), “Hmm… he’s not JC Chasez and he doesn’t have the guns to be Nick Lachey.” But Connick didn’t come off all winks and nudges and sport. Toward the end of the show, before easing into a powerful, inspired rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross,” he dedicated the song to Bob, a favorite professor who’d taught theology at his former Jesuit high school and “answered a lot of questions for me.”
Harry Connick, Jr. While his name may not be as instantly recognizable to younger listeners as, say, Incubus (which is how the aforementioned cluster of girls responded when asked by Connick to name their favorite band), he re-planted the holy fear of jazz in this occasionally-more-mature audiophile. And by mixing studied professionalism, off-the-cuff swagger and a true entertainer’s heart, he helped thousands of us huddled together in the midst of a drizzly Atlanta night realize that, while one pair of old blue eyes may have closed six years ago, a new pair are alive and bright.