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Harry Connick Jr. talks American Girl

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Cecile Marie

Harry Connick Jr.’s name is pretty much synonymous with his hometown New Orleans, which is why American Girl, the popular doll and book series now celebrating its 25th anniversary, reached out to him to pen the first original tune associated with the brand. “A Lot Like Me” is inspired by American Girl’s two new colorblind characters from 1850s New Orleans, Cécile and Marie-Grace. Even better, Connick’s 13-year-old daughter Kate sings the song, which is available exclusively on iTunes, and all proceeds from downloads go to benefit the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which opens Aug. 25 in the New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village, the community conceived by Connick and Branford Marsalis post-Katrina to house the artists who have defined the city’s culture and pass along its musical heritage to the next generation.

Kate had recorded “Winter Wonderland” with her father for his 2008 Christmas album, but this is her first solo effort. “She’s a very, very hard worker. She don’t screw around, and I’m pretty tough on her,” Connick says about hitting the studio with his daughter. “It sounds romantic, the concept of being in a recording studio and singing your heart out, but when it really gets down to it, you have to be ready to do the work. I was raised in the environment where it really wasn’t about sittin’ around dreaming all the time, it was about practicing and workin’ really hard and if a dream ever came to you, you’d be prepared for that opportunity. I have to make a decision as a dad — how hard am I gonna push? And then I think back to Ellis Marsalis, and how he was with his sons, and how he was with me, and I’m easy on you compared to that,” he laughs to Kate. “Ellis was extremely tough. You’d like not want to do it anymore after a lesson. But he got the results and it was great.”

Kate isn’t impulsive — something she definitely gets from her mother, Jill Goodacre, Connick notes — and she’s turned down opportunities in the past that haven’t felt as organic as the American Girl collaboration, which, like the new Cécile and Marie-Grace dolls and stories, celebrates New Orleans’ diversity and friendship. “It’s 2011, and this is an important story because we would like to get to a point in our society where people really are colorblind and this message would not have to be told anymore,” Connick says. “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. But when you read these stories, you realize that we really have come a long, long way, and what a cool way to get the message across without preaching about it.”

Kate definitely wants to keep singing. “I like everything my dad does, whether it’s acting or singing. I think I will probably start in jazz music and follow his footsteps,” she says. She’s been doing that since she was born. “Kate comes to New Orleans with me all the time. She’s on the road with me,” says Connick. “She’s been backstage at countless shows. It’s a part of who she is. She sees diversity. She hears music that other kids her age don’t even know exists. She’s around legendary musicians. When she was six, she wanted to play the trumpet. So I went to Costco and got her the cheapest trumpet they had, and she was really gettin’ in to playing it. And she says, ‘Can I take lessons?’ And I said, ‘Kate, I know from personal experience it’s going to be hard to find a trumpet teacher for you at that age.’ So I called Wynton Marsalis, who is arguably the greatest trumpet alive, and I said, ‘Wynton, my daughter wants to play the trumpet. Can you recommend somebody that could teach her?’ He said, ‘Oh, bring her over. I’ll teach her.’ She was six, and we sat in Wynton’s living room for two hours and he showed her how to breathe, how to position her lips, embouchure and aperture, and all that stuff. She didn’t continue playing, but the point was that she’s been around the highest level of musicianship. So it wasn’t really about intentionally exposing her to music. It’s just in her blood.” (For the record, Kate and her two sisters have introduced their father to music, too. “I can tell you every Ke$ha song, every Katy Perry song. I know a lot of Lil Wayne’s music. I know a lot of Justin Bieber’s music. I know a lot of that music because I hear it all the time,” Connick says.)

Look for Kate to perform “A Like Like Me,” on the CBS Early Show tomorrow morning. On Aug. 25, she’ll perform it at the opening of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. “I think about growing up when I was exactly Kate’s age, studying with Mr. Marsalis down there, and now, we’re at the Center in the middle of the Musicians’ Village,” says Connick. “In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought that would have even existed. I wouldn’t have thought that Katrina would have happened. I wouldn’t have thought that our city would have been so devastated. We came so perilously close to losing our musical heritage. The musicians all left, and this brought a substantial amount of them back. It’s a working, functioning place for them to physically pass the tradition on from one generation to the next. Chuck Badie, who I think is the oldest resident, has got to be in his 90s,. He played with Duke Ellington in the ’30s. You’ve got other musicians like Shamarr Allen who lived there in their 20s. It’s a phenomenal place. How cool is that, to be able to come home from school and walk across the street and be taught by a true master? There’s one guy there named Smokey Johnson, a legendary drummer. I remember the first time I played with him was on a gig when I was 14, and I kept looking to my left and seeing Smokey Johnson playin’ the drums and I couldn’t believe it. Now he lives at the village. He’s had some health issues and can’t play anymore, but the information that he has, it’s firsthand. When you think about a lot of this New Orleans music that came out of the ’50s and ’60s, these were the guys who invented it. And a lot of the music that you listen to now is because of the things that the Meters did, the Neville Brothers did, and they’re there, the guys who invented those beats that the guys sample today. Such an enormous opportunity.”

What’s next for Harry? Though American Girl has no plans for another song yet, they wouldn’t rule out another collaboration. “Yes, the Harry Doll is going to be coming out, I think in 2013,” he jokes. “It’s the first cross-dress American Girl adult male doll, so we’re excited to do that.” In October, he’ll start rehearsing for his return to Broadway in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which begins previews Nov. 12 and opens Dec. 11.

“At dinner last night, we were out with family friends; the husband looks at me and says, ‘Wow, you start rehearsing in October and you open in November, that’s not a lot of time.’ And I said, ‘Nah, you know.’ And I got home and I’m like [gasps] ‘Oh my god, I better start learnin’ my lines,'” he says. “This character is particularly glib, so I have to start workin’ on that. So if you see me around the house not communicating,” he says to Kate, “it’s because I’ve very knee-deep in endless dialogue.”

Farther into the future, could Connick envision Kate opening for him one day, like Tony Bennett’s daughter Antonia opens for her dad? “Yeah, but it wouldn’t be her opening for me, it’d be me opening for her,” he laughs. “I mean, if it goes like I think it’s gonna go, she’s gonna far surpass any efforts I’ve ever made.”