Who: John McCusker
What: Photographer, writer, musician, historian, and preservationist
Where: Gentilly since 1990 and Algiers before that
Q: When do you find yourself getting tired with a 24 hour day?
JM: You know, it’s getting earlier and earlier all the time. I’ll usually get into about the 45th minute of Rachel Maddow, and I’m nodding off by then. It’s also because as I’ve gotten older, I get up earlier, so most days, I’m up at 5:30 in the morning. It’s very rooster-like behavior, but I peak early. When the sun goes down, roosters, that’s a wrap.
When I was in my 20’s it was completely different. First of all, I worked a couple of night shifts a week, for the Times-Picayune, so there were a couple of nights a week I’d have to work until 10 or 11 o’clock at night anyway, but then I also used to play music a lot, with bands and so forth, and there are not a lot of gigs between four and seven.
Although, I also find if I stay up too late, in the quietness of late night, it becomes rather depressing. I think waking up early before everybody else is a more optimistic way to start the day, because you’re emerging into the day via quiet, rather than descending from the cacophony of the day into this kind of dead calm.
Q: Is there anything you always want to talk about you don’t get to?
JM: Oh god. I hardly talk to anybody anymore. I’m usually working in a house by myself. All day long, and I’m just listening to Robert Siegel and Jackie Norris and Ofeibea Quist-Arcton from the car.
It leaves me with my thoughts. I’m working on another book right now, so that quiet leaves me alone so I can concentrate on writing and so forth.
Q: What’s a strange byproduct from playing the banjo?
JM: Well, in most cases, it is going to confine someone to a very lonely, and probably sexless existence. Longest standing joke among professional musicians is, “What’s the difference between an onion and a banjo?”
“Nobody cries when you cut up a banjo.”
But, I have to say, there are banjos and there are banjos. [Laughing]. I can hear people rolling their eyes and tuning out right now. But, most of the banjos that were played on New Orleans jazz records were either a four string tenor banjo, or a six string, what was called a guitjo or a banjitar. It’s a banjo that’s strung the same way as a guitar.
The banjo that 90% of the world is familiar with, is actually a bluegrass banjo, which is a five string. I wouldn’t know what to do with one of those. The banjos that I’ve played have either been the tenor banjo or the six string guitjo.
So, I think jazz banjo is the sexy banjo.
Because if you’re playing jazz, music makes you happy, it makes you forget your troubles, it makes you want to dance. I hear a bluegrass banjo, and it’s a whole other thing to me. No offense to bluegrass. Bluegrass has its adherence and lovers like anybody else, and I’m not putting the music down, but it’s not my cup of banjo.
Q: Whose voice have you heard in your dreams?
JM: Well, it’s funny. Usually when I have dreams it’s someone in my life reminding me to do something I forgot to do, or telling me that I did an absolutely horrible job on whatever it was I had done that day?
I have really … I try not to deconstruct my dreams because my dreams are deconstructed in and of themselves. I wouldn’t even say that I dream; it’s more that I have nightmares. I very seldom have nice, little, fluffy dreams. It’s usually someone telling me that I can’t do whatever it is I want to do in the dream. That probably extends from my longstanding problem with authority going back to my childhood. [Laughing]. I think that’s what’s playing out.
When you’re very young and you think about growing old you have your ideas of what being old is. Almost all of them are wrong.
One of the things about getting old is you have a lot more experience to draw on. You have a greater depth of knowledge. At least, hopefully you do. You also, depending on the kind of personality you have, also have regrets. Sometimes that can get to be a burden. It can be like you’re trying to walk through life in jello because you have these things that can weigh on you. When you’re in your 20’s you’re thinking, “Do I go left or do I go right?” Now that I’m in my mid 50’s, a lot of the time I think, “God, I should have gone left there.”
I have no idea why I’m like that, because I’ve got a really neat and interesting life. I’ve met so many people. I had the fortune of being a journalist. When I was at the Picayune, back in the old days, I’d shoot five assignments a day. That’s five strangers or groups of strangers I’m meeting every day of my life.
That was an incredible life to have. At the same time, I just find as I get older I’m longing for an earlier time, longing for maybe the way things used to be.
You have monumental events in your life, like the case with Katrina. That was a monumental event in both my professional and my personal life. The Picayune was praised up and down for the work that we did–those of us that stayed here and covered the storm when it hit. The paper won two Pulitzer Prizes. That was the great part about that, but on the other part of that was the fact that I lost my house and everything I had ever owned. From my boy scout merit badges to my first grade report card. The only thing we owned after Katrina hit were the bunch of old Mardi Gras beads in a box in the attic.
There’s that duality. That’s a really extreme example of it, but the duality of something being a personal tragedy paired with great professional accomplishments. That forever alters the course of your life, not necessarily in a good way, and it’s also one of the reasons that people still talk about you.
Just the yin and yang of that, it could put your brain in circles sometimes.
John McCusker dedicates his days to preserving and sharing the jazz heritage with all through his Craddle of Jazz Tour. He is also the author of Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz. He has written numerous articles, including one of his latests: “Calling on a higher power to save a jazz landmark: Buddy Bolden’s home,” and you can often find him around town photographing Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans landmarks, and all that he would love to see preserved. You can see some of his work on Instagram.