Today, on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I feel compelled to share an interview with one of New Orleans’ native sons.
In April of last year, Harry Connick, Jr. called my house to talk, I imagine, about his upcoming appearance in Sonoma. All we could manage to talk about instead was the disaster in New Orleans. Throughout our conversation, he came off as incredibly authentic, speaking about the catastrophic situation with a compelling combination of depression and hope.
Below, you’ll find Connick, who regularly performs at Republican functions, casting shame on President Bush for not visiting New Orleans sooner. You’ll also read about how he was down there the next day, and how he wasted no time helping out to raise money to rebuild his city. And of course, I couldn’t help asking just one music-related question at the end.
Interview with Harry Connick, Jr. – April 14, 2007
Q: Where were you when Hurricane Katrina hit?
A: I was in Cape Cod, visiting some friends, and I immediately went back home to New York to try and figure out a way to get down there.
Q: Was it easy to get on a plane?
A: No, it was impossible, ‘cause no flights were going down there. So I had to – my friend Bob Wright, who at the time was the president of NBC, was kind enough to let me use the NBC plane to get down there.
Q: And you flew into the regular airport?
A: We flew into Baton Rouge.
Q; In those first hours, after the news started coming in about how bad it was, about the levees and everything, what sort of thoughts were going through your head?
A: Well, I was just helpless, you know. When they said 80% of the city was flooded, it’s just hard to imagine. So I was in shock, man, I was just really concerned about my family and seeing what I could do to help them out.
Q: You had family and friends all over the city.
Q: So, it was what, a couple days before you were able to get down there?
A: No, I was down there the day after the flood. So I got down there on Tuesday – it flooded on Monday, I got down there on Tuesday.
Q: In the liner notes to your new record, you describe meeting someone on the street – Darryl is his name, this guy who showed you around. Was he really just a stranger that you met on the street when you were walking around?
Q: Well yeah, he was on the corner, and he recognized me and asked me if I had been to the convention center, and I told him I hadn’t. And he brought me over there and showed me, there were probably 15,000 people just waiting around to be helped. And they had been there for three or four days.
Q: One of the first things you saw when you got the convention center was two dead bodies covered in sheets. How does an experience like that – how did that change you?
A: I don’t know how it changed me, to be honest with you. It just… it’s like if somebody hit you in the head with a baseball bat and you happen to survive it, you know. You, you… I mean, I don’t know how that changes you, it’s just a painful experience that you go through and eventually get over. It was rough to see.
Q: In your song, “All These People,” you kinda make reference to this guy Darryl, how ordinarily he might just be a crazy person and you might be scared, but because of the circumstances you were brought together in, like you said, “he wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t scared” – did you see a lot of that common, human brotherhood going on?
A: Oh yeah, definitely, man. I mean, I’m always… I feel like I’m like that all the time anyway, and most people are – especially down there, there’s such a great sense of community down there – but it was a heightened sense of fraternity down there, everybody just tryin’ to make it, man, tryin’ to figure out what to do. I mean it was profound, it felt like the end of the world. I mean it really did. It was a similar feeling to after 9/11, how people just kinda came together and tried to help each other out.
Q: Also, in your official press release from Columbia, it states that you have a focus on solutions rather than casting blame. But don’t you think that just a little bit of blame could be cast?
A: Oh, I cast plenty of blame, I just don’t do it in public. I don’t think there’s any reason to. ‘Cause it doesn’t change anything. There’s no reason to do that. Plus, I’m ignorant to most of the information that transpires between people that do that for a living – I’m not privy to all that stuff. So it would be easy for me to say “oh, this person didn’t do this, this person didn’t do that,” but nobody – I mean, I’m not in those meetings, I don’t know the reasons for that stuff, know what I mean? So it’s just pointless to cast blame, it’s not my business.
Q: Do you think… I mean, it really did take a long time for people to get down there. If you were able to get down there on an NBC plane, then Bush probably could have gotten down there a little quicker than he did.
A: Yeah. I think he should have been down there. I don’t know why he wasn’t. He’s our president, I think it’s nice to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I think he absolutely should have been down there and had his sleeves rolled up. If you look back 40 years ago, there was another president from Texas [Lyndon B. Johnson] after a hurricane in New Orleans who was trudging through the sludge tryin’ to help people. And I think President Bush probably should have been down there. But he wasn’t, and it’s over, and that’s what it is.
Q: What one displaced musician’s story affected you the most, where you really just said, “This enormously gifted person has no home now, and that is a shame?”
A: Oh, I’ll leave him nameless, but one of my good friends, a great trumpet player. I was actually trying to help sponsor him for a house out of town, with his three children and his wife, and the person, when they found out he was black, they said “we don’t want those people here.” I mean, it’s 2007. You just don’t… I don’t understand that, it doesn’t make any sense. It just makes no sense at all.
Q: At what point did you know that you had to do something major to help?
A: Immediately. Immediately. I called my dad, asked him, “What do I do?” I said, “Can we form some kind of committee to help rebuild New Orleans?” He said, “Well, it doesn’t work like that, you can’t just rebuild a city.” Then my manager suggested that we help the musicians, and so that’s how the idea of the Musician’s Village was born. It’s going great now. It’s been a big success.
Q: How many houses have been built in the village so far?
A: I think 40 or 50, probably.
Q: And you’ve got room for about 300 or so?
A: I don’t know how it works – it’s gonna be 70 houses and 10 duplex apartments. I’m not sure how many people that works out to be.
Q: I hear that during the jazz festival you were there, helping paint houses.
A: Yeah, I mean I can’t take any credit for any manual labor down there, but I do certainly go down to keep the awareness level up about it. I think I have a moral and ethical responsibility to stay on that, because those types of situations have a tendency to get on the back burner and fall apart over the years, and we’re just not gonna let that happen.
Q: Speaking of programs falling apart and everything, I know there’s a lot of charity donations for Katrina relief that get tied up in bureaucracies, there’s the Road Home program and the money for that is still in waiting – how does it feel to directly, in person, rebuild houses in a hands-on fashion?
Q: It’s great. It’s not rocket science, man, you just need to get a bunch of people. Well, that’s not fair, because Habitat For Humanity has been around for a long time and they’ve developed the system of doing this and they’ve got it down to a science. So I walked in at the tail end of that and in a sense we made it look easy – so in fact, it is kind of more like rocket science. But I think there doesn’t have to be a bunch of red tape. You just raise the money, put your mind to it, and get the work done, and that’s pretty much what we did. It just goes to show you that it’s possible.
Q: You took the Neville Brothers’ place and closed out the jazz festival this year. How was that?
A: Oh, it was great. I like playing JazzFest in any capacity. It’s sad that the Neville Brothers couldn’t do it, but I was happy to do it and I had a great time. The crowd was great and people were real cool, so we had fun.
Q: I know that… the vibrant mood of the jazz festival might not be the best barometer, but can you describe the mood of New Orleans, the city, right now – what would you say is its spirit right now?
A: Depressed. I’d say depressed, in a word.
A: Yeah, man, they can’t live in their houses, most of the people. The majority of the population can’t come home. No, it’s bad. It’s really bad.
Q: There’s probably a lot of people around America that… the state of the city is sort of out of sight, out of mind at this point – it doesn’t get told on the news that much anymore. And at the same time I hear about official tour buses that you can sign up for when you go to New Orleans that’ll take you around the 9th ward to see the houses, and the buses are packed. People want to see this for some reason.
Q: Well, everybody has a job, and my job it to keep people aware of it. So I try to tell ‘em during the show, and I don’t want to make it a forum for politics or social issues, but most of the time I get up and just say a few words about New Orleans, and people are very responsive. Shoot, we’ve had 25-30 thousand volunteers come from all over the world come and help, and those tour buses, the last stop on their tour is the Musician’s Village. So, you know, we’re doin’ all right. It’s just gonna take a long time. If you look back in history at catastrophes, natural disasters in other places – I mean, we ain’t even reached two years yet. Those things take sometimes decades to repair themselves, so I think we’re on track. It’s just frustrating for the inhabitants now because they’re in the middle of it.
Q: One of the songs you recorded on your album, it’s a great song, “Yes We Can Can” by Allen Toussaint.
A: I love that song.
Q: You said that if you could choose the official song for the City of New Orleans, you would make it that song.
A: Yeah, I mean especially right now. It’s so simple in its sentiment. It basically says, “I know we can do this.” As cliché as it sounds, that’s kind of what we need to be saying.
Q: “Make this land a better land.”
A: Exactly, I mean it couldn’t be more prophetic.
Q: I just have one more question for you, Harry, and then I’ll let you go. James Carroll Booker III: Was he or was he not the baddest motherfucker you ever played with?
A: The baddest, bro. The baddest. There was nobody who could come close to him. I’ve played with some serious people, you know… nobody could come close to him. He was the baddest.
Q: Alright, hey, thank you so much for giving me a call and taking the time to do this.
A: Yeah, bro, after the show, man, come say hey. I appreciate the work you did for this interview, man, you know what you’re talking about.