By Lolis Eric Elie
We decided that Davis McAlary should conduct a series of jazz history tours this season. The inspiration for my contributions to this story line came from the Cradle of Jazz tour I took years ago with John McCusker. He and I were colleagues at The Times-Picayune, where he spent 26 years as a photographer. Many of the sites we visited on the tour were in various stages of neglect and disrepair. The 400 block of South Rampart, where Louis Armstrong and many other early greats played, has been collapsing for years. Charles “Buddy” Bolden’s grave didn’t have a marker, even though he is widely credited as being the father of traditional jazz. Perseverance Society Hall, one of only a few extant places where Bolden is known to have played, is slowly on the mend. His house is all but invisible on most tours of important New Orleans landmarks.
John left the paper to dedicate himself full-time to his jazz tour business and the promotion of his book, 'Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz.' Here’s what he had to say about his real-life version of McAlary’s Musical Heritage Tours.
I never fancied myself a tour guide. But I did a series of photos and stories on the history of early jazz for The Times-Picayune in 1993, and as part of that I put together a map of the homes and hangouts of New Orleans musicians. And I started thinking, “What a great tour this would make.” I called all the tour companies and none of them had a tour like that.
I went about constructing a tour that would tell the evolution of jazz in New Orleans through the biographies and landmarks of its key musicians. I did my first tour in 1994 for the Ken Colyer Trust, a traditional jazz organization based in England.
What I offered challenged the myth-laden jazz creation story – the whole foolishness about instruments left over from the Civil War, the Storyville jazz diaspora that never happened, etc. The tour carried a level of authenticity that they just ate up. I continued to update it as I did my research for my book on Kid Ory and it evolved into a very tight little two-and-a-half-hour tour.
I’m not trying specifically to focus on endangered landmarks. It’s a fact that that’s the state of jazz landmarks in the city of New Orleans, with the exception of the Kid Ory house, which looks like a success story now. It was a crack house that’s been renovated into an owner-occupied home complete with a commemorative plaque on the front. Another exception to the rule is Jelly Roll Morton’s home, which is owned by historian, preservationist and musician Jack Stewart. Just about every other landmark on my tour is in an endangered state.
What we tend to enshrine in this city are the landmarks that really have nothing to do with why people come here in the first place. Like Madame John’s Legacy. It’s the last example of French colonial architecture in the French Quarter. It’s very important as a landmark and it’s great. But people don’t get on a plane in Helsinki to come here to see Madame John’s Legacy. People come here because it’s the home of jazz.
Tours in this city in this region are culturally biased. There’s no other way to put it. If you go to San Francisco Plantation they will talk 10 minutes about a piece of furniture, but they will mention practically nothing about the hundreds of enslaved people who lived behind the plantation. If you look at the things that people come to our city for – our cuisine, our music, our architecture – you can’t tell that story without telling the story of black New Orleans and that story is not being told. Laura Planation is the exception. They tell the whole story there. They have a specific tour that’s geared toward just telling that story alone.
The strangest thing that happened during a tour occurred with a group from the U.K. We were on South Rampart Street and my tour group was facing me, their backs to an approaching naked man who was talking out of his head. Luckily it was a group from the U.K. So as the naked man walked through them on his trek they kept their eyes averted and their upper lips appropriately stiff. And I said in jest, “You’re all from England so you should have no trouble pretending that never happened.”
John McCusker can be reached at email@example.com.