John McCusker seems to conduct time. Not in a Mt. Olympus, string of fates kind of way, but with his stories and the visuals that he brings to New Orleans. Born and raised in New Orleans, he grew up with the sounds of history all around him while watching the changes that drifted through the city he has always called home.
His ears and eyes have heard and captured New Orleans in a way unique to him, and he took those talents to the Times Picayune back in 1986 where he was the staff photographer. Many know him by reputation–the photographer that stayed back with a team of reporters in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. By 2006, he and that team of reporters had a Pulitzer Prize to add to their names for the Katrina coverage they provided to the world.
John is still providing coverage of New Orleans, but his focus has changed a bit. He runs The Cradle of Jazz Tours, where he guides out-of-towners and locals alike throughout the city in the name of jazz education and preservation. Stops by Kid Ory’s house, the Eagle Saloon, and places where Louis Armstrong would ramble around and play with other musicians are all on the bill with the added bonus of story telling.
“Louis was really kind of a street urchin in 1911,” McCusker explains as he retells the story of Armstrong living with the Karnofsky family–a Jewish immigrant family that hired Armstrong as a delivery boy and then took him in as one of their own. “This man was multi-cultural before we even had the term,” McCusker says.
Armstrong dedicates much of his musical education to the Karnofsky family, and he wore the Star of David around his neck in honor of them. When Armstrong sang in Yiddish with the family, McCusker explains, “He’s singing with feeling but has no idea what he is saying.” Making vocal changes that sound like nonsense, that sounds a lot like a particular jazz technique. Scatting. Could it be that those Yiddish songs were the creative roots that eventually lead Armstrong to scat during his songs? These are the kinds of questions McCusker wonders about and brings into his tour.
The Cradle of Jazz tour started back in 1994, so McCusker has had some time to perfect his tour-guide skills. “When you’ve done it for over twenty years and had to present it to people who don’t care about jazz and just want an interesting tour as well as people who live and breath this stuff, you get an idea of what generally resonates best,” he says. People love the stories that stick with them, and that means they have to feel something about the information they’re hearing. “I wanted to tell stories that connected to the humanity of the place, even though we’re just looking at a building.”
All of those buildings are of the utmost importance to McCusker. He has dedicated much of his life to researching jazz and the vanguards of jazz, and he also speaks openly about the importance of preserving these historical places. He writes about the degradation done to Buddy Bolden’s house in his piece “Calling on a higher power to save a jazz landmark: Buddy Bolden’s home” and he focuses his writing on jazz masters, such as his book Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz.
From the Mardi Gras Indians and band members of Louis Armstrong to the homes of jazz players he refuses to leave behind, McCusker is collapsing the past into the present through his photos and words. In a city where you can still hear hooves clopping down the street and a calliope in the distance while walking over bricked pathways at the base of houses dating from the 1800s, we’d say that he and New Orleans are definitely one.
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.