March 28, 1988 12:00 PM

In the early days, Harry Connick used to stroll into one of New Orleans’ dark, smoky bars to listen to such jazz legends as Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich. By that time, his own reputation as a jazz pianist and singer was already so firmly established on Bourbon Street that he would frequently be invited to sit in on sessions. His rasping impersonation of Louis Armstrong was especially popular, and eventually he was invited to join Rich on tour. Looking back, Connick says he would have accepted in a jiffy if only he hadn’t had a prior commitment: He had to finish elementary school. Harry Connick was all of 6 years old when he began hitting the Bourbon Street bars, escorted by his parents, and he was 9 when Rich invited him to see the world with his band.

Connick, at 20, still isn’t old enough to drink at many of the clubs where he plays, but his reputation has now spread far beyond New Orleans. In the past nine months, he has opened for sax star Branford Marsalis in L.A.; accompanied singer-dancer Maurice Hines in Spain; performed at Peter Allen’s 44th-birthday party in Manhattan; and last week he opened for Stan Getz at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. This summer he will play on a Herbie Hancock special on Showtime. Later this month Connick will begin his first tour, of 10 cities, playing selections from his 1987 Columbia debut album, Harry Connick Jr. “I’ve been impressed with Harry since I first heard him, when he was 15 years old,” George Shearing says. “He’s a wonderful player.”

Given his record of precociousness, it comes as no surprise that Connick first showed his musical bent at the age of 3. His mother, a former judge who died when Harry was 13, noticed that the toddler always sat in attentively during his 6-year-old sister’s piano lessons. At 5, when he began taking lessons on his own, he had learned “The Star-Spangled Banner” well enough to perform it at his father’s swearing-in as New Orleans district attorney. One of his greatest childhood thrills was performing “I’m Just Wild About Harry” in a documentary with Eubie Blake. “That was a really special time,” Harry recalls. “He was 96 and I was 9. He’d seen jazz before jazz was invented.”

To please his father, Connick put in a semester at Loyola University before moving in 1986 to New York City, where he briefly studied music theory at the Manhattan School of Music. For the first six months, Connick doggedly pursued George Butler, a Columbia Records executive who had admired his playing when he was 14. When Butler finally returned his calls and listened to a demo tape, he signed the young pianist on the spot. “Harry,” Butler says, “is a potential giant.”

Part of Harry’s gift is the ability to listen. “I try to sop up everything I hear,” he says, and he has heard a lot. He has also been helped by Wynton Marsalis, with whose father, Ellis, Connick studied during high school. “Wynton has opened doors for me and a lot of other people,” Harry says. “I love him a lot and I’m deeply grateful.” As talented and confident as he is, however, Connick is still overawed by the masters, and playing in the shadow of perfection often makes him depressed. “I don’t like to play,” he insists. “I feel every note has to be representative of the tradition, and playing the piano after listening to Duke Ellington records is like trying to write poetry after reading Shakespeare. Sometimes six months go by when every note I play sounds terrible to me.”

Picking songs and music for his next two albums, Connick spends most evenings in his one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment, listening to records with his girlfriend, Mary Ruth Tomasiewicz, a free-lance stage manager. Despite occasional attacks of the artistic blues, he says he’d be a truly happy man if only Manhattan offered a few of the luxuries he knew as a kid in New Orleans. “Oooh, what I’d do for jambalaya and red beans,” he says. “And oh, man, I’m going crazy without grits.” Harry, after all, is a man of tradition. “I’ve vowed that I’m never going to do a pop record,” he says. “My biggest goal is playing jazz. I’ve already decided that I’m setting aside the next 50 years of my life to trying to figure out how to play the piano.”

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