“Is Jazz a Black Thing?”

Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis

Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis

“Is jazz a black thing?”  That seemed to be the animating question going into our interviews in New Orleans with musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr.  Harry told us that when he was young he wanted to “be black” because everyone he grew up around in the New Orleans jazz scene was black. He didn’t feel like he was part of the club!

I come from a long line of jazz musicians.  My great-uncle, Tony Scibetta, wrote songs for Mel Torme, Blossom Dearie and Tony Bennett.  My grandfather was a jazz bassist and my father a professional piano player.  They raised me to respect all the greats like Mingus, Miles and Duke Ellington.  But, as a young person, I never gave much thought to the origins of the music, nor did I ever think jazz was a “black thing.”  As far as I knew, it was an “Italian thing.”  That’s why I was so excited to delve into the history of New Orleans, in order to learn more about the musical backgrounds of Connick and Marsalis in the birthplace of jazz.

I had heard of the great Marsalis family. I was familiar with Branford’s inspired playing on both jazz and pop records, and especially familiar with his Sting collaborations.  But I was less familiar with Harry’s jazz chops.  To me he was a crooner: the guy who brought pop standards from the American Songbook back into the mainstream after singing on the soundtrack for “When Harry Met Sally.”  So, on a hot July afternoon when he sat down in front of the piano at Preservation Hall, the legendary jazz club in the French Quarter, I had no idea what I was about to witness. Twenty minutes later he definitively answered the question “is jazz a black thing” without uttering a word.  See what you think…

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr..

John Maggio is a Director and Producer for Finding Your Roots.