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Where Y'at Magazine
November 2008

John Rankin
Last in April First in May
Rankomatic Music

John Rankin has successfully put together a great 47 minutes and 49 seconds of listening. A native New Orleans guitarist, his first track on Last in April First in May is a float-in entrance to the second, which immediately takes it up three notches to a complex euro-folk ditty with an optimistic sounding progression. Percussion is thrown in to the mix right then, and later in the rest of the album, he joins other musicians on instruments such as steel drums, saxophone, bass guitar, and I believe what is a melody, but not one voice. Yet there’s something to be said for his wordless music and how much he conveys through six steel strings. The entire album is instrumental, a conscious decision made by Mr. Rankin, with 10 original compositions and four covers. When playing it at my house, a friend of mine, a young lady, commented that she felt like a classic film was being played in the other room, and later, that she was in Ratatouille—both compliments, I believe. The third comment from another friend was that it was “simply lovely.” Rankin obviously hit spot-on with the world-music feel throughout the disc that is fitting for his New Orleans sound. He rotates around various styles of music using only one acoustic guitar, being able to articulate the substance of the songs using a verbose instrumental language. Without even seeing his hands, any listener can tell that his fingers are flying around in a picking style that he has developed to the point of granting him complete freedom in moving about the fret board. It appears audibly that what he wants to be played in his mind is being flawlessly translated through to the guitar—something all musicians hope for. –Thomas Rush


John Rankin to showcase new instrumentals during 'Guitar Summit'
Friday, May 16, 2008 New Orleans Times Picayune
By Keith Spera, music writer

In 1976, John Rankin was a young guitarist eking out a living in Boston and taking classes at the Berklee College of Music.

Meanwhile his mother, Betty "Big Mama" Rankin, was deeply immersed in New Orleans' jazz and second-line culture. She bought her son a plane ticket to fly home for the '76 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. What he saw and heard -- guitarist Snooks Eaglin, drummer Johnny Vidacovich with guitarist Leo Nocentelli and pianist Henry Butler -- changed his life.

"It was this enormous synthesis of styles, like a hippie thing gone good," Rankin recalled. "I was a white boy living in New England, caught up in writing my own James Taylor and Earl Klugh-style songs; Snooks totally blew my mind."

Rankin moved back to New Orleans in 1978. In the next 30 years, he figures he's missed only five days of Jazzfest.

"That's because I really love it," said Rankin, a regular fest performer as well. "It's changed -- it's always changing. But I still love it. It's the spring fertility festival of all festivals."

Rankin titled his new CD "Last in April, First in May" in honor of Jazzfest's traditional weekends. He'll showcase material from the disc during Saturday's Guitar Summit at Snug Harbor. Backed by bassist Martin Masakowski and percussionist Hector Gallardo, Ranking will perform solo and as a guitar duo or trio with Steve Masakowski of Astral Project and Geno Bertoncini, whose credits range from Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman and Tony Bennett to "The Tonight Show" house band in the Johnny Carson era.

Rankin, an adjunct professor of music at Loyola University, has issued a wealth of material in recent years. His 2002 album "Guitar Gumbo" focused on New Orleans-inspired solo guitar pieces. 2005's "Fess' Mess" explored his singer-songwriter inclinations.

For "Last in April, First in May," he assembled a collection of mostly original instrumentals that hang together as a cohesive, if varied, whole.

"People know from the first cut what they're going to get," Rankin said. "It's not an obtuse record. With pretty melodies and grooves, it's pretty clear.

"And I like the fact that it's not folk or jazz or traditional or New Age or classical. It's acoustic."

The disc's other featured players -- saxophonist Clarence Johnson, percussionist Michael Skinkus, bassists Jesse Boyd and Tim Paco -- are of a similar mindset. Percussion is simply an accent; the guitar is the focus and rhythmic core of the CD.

Rankin borrowed the title track's syncopated rhythm pattern from an African band he heard at Jazzfest's Congo Square stage.

"Seeing all these African bands (at Jazzfest) connected to me in a New Orleans way," Rankin said. "You can see the lineage of African music to New Orleans -- it's so upbeat and happy and positive."

On "Klaus' Dream," saxophonist Johnson slips into smooth-jazz mode. Rankin omitted several cuts from the record on which Johnson's horn dominated.

"Clarence is such a great player and powerful force that it was becoming a John Rankin/Clarence Johnson record," Rankin said. "So I had to pull it back a little bit."

The minor-key "The Dream Palace," featuring clarinetist Tom Fischer, is a homage to the storied Frenchmen Street venue. "Django Djingle" is based on a Django Reinhardt chord progression, but breezes along in the style of Chet Atkins.

"Danza Brasilera" is a reinterpreted classical guitar piece by Argentine guitarist Jorge Morel. Rankin also remakes Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" with a light, Caribbean feel, backed by drummer J.J. Juliano.

Most strikingly, the Meters' "Cissy Strut" is completely reborn. "Just the idea of doing that on a solo guitar is kind of funky," Rankin said. "I try not to do things the way you expect to hear them."

Rankin said that he is looking forward to the creative possibilities of Saturday's "Guitar Summit." He has collaborated with Masakowski "not nearly as much as I would like to. He's more like a physicist and I'm more like a gymnast. Steve is one of the most brilliant abstract guitarists in the world. I've seen him blow away many great guitarists who didn't know what they were walking into."

As for Bertoncini, "Gene is halfway between me and Steve," Rankin said. "Like me, Gene has a classical and jazz background, but his specialty is playing classical guitar. Gene has played with me at The Columns. He met me where I was, and I stretched a little toward him. Playing with those two guys is a fabulous thing for me."
Featuring: John Rankin, Steve Masakowski and Gene Bertoncini.
When: Saturday, 8 and 10 p.m.
Where: Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchmen St., (504) 949-0696.
Tickets: $20 at the door.


John Rankin’s Latest CD
By King of Elephants • June 7, 2008

In the liner notes of this CD, John Rankin writes “it is not a New Orleans album in every sense.” What I think he means is that to those for whom New Orleans is only an adjective, it is not a New Orleans album. But New Orleans is a place, not an adjective, and John Rankin’s music comes from his life in the place where he has played and taught guitar for the past 30 years or so. This CD is no less “New Orleans” than are the cracks in the sidewalks that Mr. Rankin walks.

John Rankin is a guitar player, whereas most of the rest of us are merely guitar owners. This all-instrumental recording demonstrates a wide variety of guitar styles, tones, and techniques. The emotions on the tunes range from meditative (”Looking Back”) to comical (”Django Djingle”) to romantic (”Danza Brazilera”) to deep and low down. “Blue Thundercloud” is something like Clint Eastwood somehow transformed into a single song - powerful stuff.

If you have ever tried to get away with playing “Cissy Strut” on a dreadnought acoustic guitar, you will be impressed by this arrangement with the DADGAD alternate tuning. Rankin makes Leo Nocentelli’s funky guitar licks his own while keeping the true spirit of the song - not a easy thing to do.

The tones of these songs seem thoughtfully planned. The resonator guitar on “St. Thomas” sounds as proper as a steel drum on this tropical tune. With an added piece of plastic in the strings near the bridge of his guitar he gets the exact sound he is looking for. The guitar synth on “Cycle” gives that one piece a Pat Metheny feel.

The title tune, “Last in April First in May” is presumably about Jazz Fest which is held on the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May. He is accompanied by Jesse Boyd (bass) and Michael Skinkus (percussion), and who better to play on a song about jazz fest. Among the three of them there must be 70+ Jazz Fest performances.

My favorite track is “The Dream Palace,” a gypsy jazz duet performed with clarinet player Tom Fischer. Perfect.

John Rankin’s music is important to New Orleans, the place. Whatever quality is has that excludes it from New Orleans, the adjective, needs to be given its due.

You can buy this CD at CD Baby.

You can buy more of John Rankin’s MP3’s at iTunes Store Music

OFFBEAT June 2008
John Rankin
Last in April First in May
By Alex Rawls

Less is often more. I know, that’s not profound, but it’s still true, as John Rankin’s Last in April First in May demonstrates. The album is most intriguing and involving when his acoustic guitar is unaccompanied, whether on his witty take on the Meters’ “Cissy Strut,” the gypsy jazz of “Django Djangle” or the Scottish traditional “Lang a Growing.” The texture of his playing and the sound of his fingering on the strings—even the different touches with the fingers of his right hand as strikes, pulls or plucks notes—give the tracks character.

With a larger band, the results are mixed. “Klaus’s Dream” and “Cycle” are pleasantly attractive, but they pale next to rest of the album. More satisfying are “Danza Brasiliera” (featuring Clarence Johnson III on clarinet) and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” where, again, guitar textures count. The latter is played on a National Radio-Tone Bendaway that almost sounds like a thumb piano, the fragile, broken-off notes underscoring the Caribbean in the composition. At every turn, the album shows Rankin’s musical intelligence and craft.

John Rankin admits he can’t be stylistically pigeonholed. “What I do is confusing to people and I’m sorry,” he offers with a chuckle. His loosely defines himself as “a New Orleans-style improviser” and says he plays “piano-style guitar.” Rankin cites his influences including first and foremost Jelly Roll Morton along with Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis and a host of friends. He arrived in New Orleans in 1957 when his father, who sang with big bands, was hired by Tulane University and his mother started working at the school’s jazz archives. While attending Lusher Elementary, he fooled around with trumpet and landed on guitar. At 16 years old, Rankin started a lifetime of gigging, playing with a quartet at Cosimo’s bar and heading to Bourbon Street to perform at the Bayou Room. At Fortier High School, he was in a band called (believe it or not) Yats & Frats. He earned a degree in music from the University of Southwest Louisiana and then headed east to attend the Berklee School of Music. A visit back to New Orleans for the 1976 Jazz Fest sealed Rankin’s return to the city in 1978. While working on his Masters degree, the guitarist pursued his solo career, taking the stage at spots like the Maple Leaf – where he held down Sundays for five years – Tipitina’s, Jed’s, Tyler’s and the Dream Castle (later to become the Dream Palace.) From 1982 until 1985, he took to the road for some regional touring. Through the years, Rankin taught at most of the local universities – Loyola, Delgado and Xavier – and was at Tulane from 1980 until Hurricane Katrina. He presently teaches classical guitar at the University of New Orleans, where he’s shared his knowledge since 1991. Primarily a solo musician, when he teams with others on recordings and gigs he usually calls in musicians from the jazz world. He says they offer him the “understated sophistication” he’s looking for and the ability to improvise, read and be flexible.

Quotable: Rankin offers this from David Lee Roth: “The most important thing is sincerity and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

John Rankin
Instrument: Guitar and vocals Birthplace: Reidsville, N.C. Age: 59 Present Work: John Rankin’s Rites of Swing, solo guitar/singer, Rachel Van Voorhees, Patti Adams, Danny O’Flaherty Past Work: Allen Toussaint, Evan Christopher (All-Star 2002), Chip Wilson, Beth Patterson Recordings: As leader, Rachel Van Voorhees, Allen Toussaint, Danny O’Flaherty, Kitty West, Charlie Brent Where To See: Columns Hotel, Spotted Cat, Polo Lounge, French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest.

GAMBIT 4/24/07 Jazz Fest issue
6:15 p.m., Allison Miner Music Heritage/Lagniappe Stage
Finger-style guitar impresario John Rankin has taught music at nearly every major New Orleans university, but he's no ivory tower academic. In fact, Rankin's impeccable technique has been on display at every Jazz Fest over the past 25 years. 2003 release Guitar Gumbo (STR Digital) showcases the master's intricate multi-string skills.
WHERE YAT Monthly Magazine February 2005
A tall, dapper man with a sly smile, John Rankin plays the guitar southpaw style with a finger-picking skill that elicits visions of Mississippi John Hurt and Joao Gilberto at the same time. Rankin's weekly gig at the Columns is a music connoisseur's treat, with melodic clusters of notes spilling out of his guitar and filling the hotel's front lounge with warmth and tonal brilliance. Rankin dabbles in compositions from a wide array of songbooks, and oftentimes provokes the largest grins among audience members when he completely rips open the guts of a familiar standard tune and takes it to places that even the most jaded of ears have yet to hear.
GAMBIT WEEKLY December 31, 2002

No. 5) John Rankin -- Guitar Gumbo (STR Digital) One of the long under-appreciated veteran players in New Orleans showcases his formidable guitar playing in this solo program stacked with New Orleans favorites. Whether he's playing the piano and horn of Earl King's "Big Chief" or taking "Iko Iko" back to the Caribbean with a chorus that sounds like steel drums, Rankin always sounds breezy and effortless, but never cliched. The album's centerpiece is his Jesse Fuller tribute "Mr. Fotdella," where Rankin's 12-string guitar workout sounds like the work of three guitarists.
WHERE YAT magazine July 2005

In 2002, John Rankin showcased various New Orleans solo guitar styles with his release of Guitar Gumbo. Now, the accomplished guitar virtuoso widens his musical scope and delves deeper into the New Orleans musical tradition with Fess' Mess, an album that pays homage to the styles of such local legends as Professor Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, Gatemouth Brown, and Fats Domino.

Rankin's talent cannot be overstated. On this one album alone, Rankin plays classical guitar, a dreadnaught, a custom seven string and a Taylor 12 string all with equal mastery. If you have lived in New Orleans for years or simply passed through on your way from Houston to Mobile, you will immediately recognize that the album's musical offerings are very indicative of New Orleans. Moreover, Rankin is not satisfied in simply rehashing classics and compiling them in something of a musical museum. Turning the traditional Mardi Gras anthem “If Ever I Cease to Love” into a beautiful acoustic melody and adding new lyrics to familiar numbers, Rankin seems to only strengthen the musical traditions as he archives them.

by P. Countryman
OFFBEAT Magazine June 2005
Rankomatic Music

John Rankin employs seven different guitars, harmonica and vocals to evoke and pay homage to artists who have filled his-and our-life with music. In simple settings of solos, duos, trios and quartets, the accomplished guitarist suggests the straight-forward funkiness of Snooks Eaglin on his original, “Leavin' You,” with Johnny Vidacovich layin' down the essential groove, offers a touch of Professor Longhair's Latin tinge on the title cut and puts a different spin on Joe Jones' “You Talk Too Much.” There are also moments of great beauty including “Django's Tears” and a slowly flowing “If Ever I Cease To Love.” This rendition might change the minds of those who usually cringe at the first strains of the Mardi Gras anthem. With support from bassist Tim Paco, Rankin's classical guitar and the clarinet of Clarence Johnson dance on “Moonshine Rag.” Both here and on James Booker's “Gonzo,” the guitarist successfully transforms tunes that rely on keyboards to feel natural in their new environs. A delicately executed “New Orleans” appropriately brings Fess' Mess to a close with Rankin's guitar a wisp of Spanish moss stirred by the sultry air of Johnson's tenor.

By Geraldine Wyckoff


By Keith Spera, Music writer

Local guitarist John Rankin offers his take on New Orleans sounds

At first glance, the Jackson Hill photograph on the cover of local guitarist
John Rankin's new CD, "Fess' Mess," appears to be a straightforward, if
somewhat surreal, image: A young boy holding an umbrella while dancing on
the wall of an ancient cemetery.

But knowing the photo's setting adds a whole other appreciation for the New
Orleans-ness of the moment: The boy was part of the second-line procession
for rhythm and blues character Ernie K-Doe's funeral in the summer of 2001.

Similarly, Rankin's music reveals its true colors only when placed in the
context of a musician who is very much of the city, even if not overtly so.

His charming 2002 album "Guitar Gumbo" (STR Digital Records) realized
finger-style solo guitar versions of songs normally rendered in the classic
New Orleans piano styles: "Big Chief," "Do You Know What It Means to Miss
New Orleans," "Iko Iko," the early Jelly Roll Morton composition "Michigan

On "Fess' Mess," Rankin's hometown is again the focus, but with a different

"I'm always trying to find a theme for a record," Rankin said. "This is New
Orleans music, but more of a vocal thing. I'm not sure how to explain it in
a marketing sense. Somebody called it 'New Orleans folk blues jazz lounge.'
That's why I call it an 'eclectic romp.' "

That he would make such an album is not surprising. At 15, Rankin was
already gigging at the Bayou Room, the long-defunct folk club in the 300
block of Bourbon Street where the then-unknown Stephen Stills and Jimmy
Buffett honed their chops. Rankin also grooved to Ernie K-Doe, Benny
Spellman and the other New Orleans rhythm and blues stars of the early

And then the British Invasion happened. "I was dancing to New Orleans
stuff," he said. "Then the Beatles came out and everything I knew

Rock 'n' roll never held much allure for him. So he studied classical
guitar in college, played in show bands and started teaching. Currently, he
is an adjunct music professor at Tulane, Loyola and the University of New
Orleans ("students everywhere and benefits nowhere," he says). He has
performed at every New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since 1981,
including a set at the Fair Grounds last weekend.

Rankin issued his debut LP, "Something I Ate," in 1984, backed by the likes
of guitarist John Mooney, drummer Johnny Vidacovich and bassist George
Porter Jr. on a set of Dr. John- and Bonnie Raitt-inspired material. He's
not quite ready to reissue "Something I Ate" on CD.

"I don't want to before I get more stuff to draw attention to the fact that
I'm better than that now," he said. "It was some good songs with some bad

His vocals "are still my most vulnerable fear, but I enjoy singing now. I
enjoy relating to people and telling stories."

To that end, on "Fess' Mess" he wrote new lyrics for the traditional
"Frankie and Johnny." His inspiration was the late jazz guitarist and
raconteur Danny Barker, who could transform a simple melody such as "St.
James Infirmary" into a dramatic story song.

Three different configurations are featured on "Fess' Mess": Solo guitar
pieces; trio pieces with bassist Tim Paco and saxophonist Clarence Johnson,
the players who often join him for his weekly Tuesday night gig at the
Columns Hotel; and a quartet with Vidacovich on drums, saxophonist Eric
Traub and bassist Jesse Boyd.

Listeners familiar with "Guitar Gumbo" may be startled by the first two
cuts on "Fess' Mess," as they are the disc's most fully fleshed-out

The title track originated as a solo 12-string guitar and harmonica
instrumental; Rankin reimagined it with the quartet and lyrics in homage to
piano icon Professor Longhair. Rankin considers "Leavin' You" to be "an Earl
King groove with a Snooks Eaglin rhythm."

"It's all about groove," Rankin said. "I like the simplicity of the

After that opening surprise, the album quiets down, with most songs taking
on a traditional jazz slant.

Rankin added lyrics to gypsy-jazz legend Django Reinhardt's "Tears" after
reading a Reinhardt biography. Local singer Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris
suggested the unusually mellow arrangement for "If Ever I Cease To Love,"
the official Mardi Gras anthem. Rankin usually performs "Moonshine Rag" as a
solo classical piece, but here hands it over to Paco and Johnson.

He reworks the Joe Jones/Reggie Hall hit "You Talk Too Much" and Fats
Domino's "I'm Walkin' ," rhythm and blues classics he enjoyed in his youth.
Pianist James Booker's "Gonzo" also dates to Rankin's teen years; he bought
the 45 rpm, but initially thought the artist was Booker T & the MGs.

Rankin's own "Drunk Last Night" is a 10-bar, rather than the standard
12-bar, blues. "I didn't realize it was short two measures," he said.

The curtain falls on the album with a lovely trio version of Hoagy
Carmichael's "New Orleans."

"These are songs that mean something to me about New Orleans, for different
reasons," Rankin said. "I'm a big guy for tradition, but I don't want to put
out a traditional jazz album for tourists. I'm not trying to do a tourist
record -- I'm trying to do a New Orleans record for New Orleanians."

From GAMBIT Magazine, April 23, 2002
By Scott Jordan

(STR Digital)

Veteran New Orleans guitarist and Loyola School of Music professor John Rankin is a scholar of New Orleans music and all things six-string, and his long-overdue new CD Guitar Gumbo plays like an unpretentious and joyous master class.

His opening take on the Earl King classic "Big Chief" sets the tone, with Rankin nimbly picking the opening progression's standard horn/piano line to cast the song in a new light. "Iko Iko" is similarly charming, as Rankin's unique tuning and picking take the song straight to the islands, sounding like a chorus of pan steel drums. He can wax sentimental, too, as on the ballads "If I Had You" and especially "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," which is stripped to its melody and delivered with lyrical grace. "Mr. Fotdella," a tribute to Jesse Fuller, is the album's barnburner, as Rankin puts a 12-string guitar through the paces, at times sounding like three guitarists. He takes two vocal turns on the CD, wrapping his warm baritone around a John Lee Hooker-inspired take on "Come Back Baby," and a carefree version of "Sunny Side of the Street" that nods to James Booker.

One of the charms of the album is its warm, pristine recording, which captures the sound of Rankin's fingers gliding across the strings, and the faint wooden echo reverberating from inside his guitar. It sounds pure and natural, just like the music on this fine offering from an underrecognized New Orleans virtuoso. --Scott Jordan


WWOZ interview

Interview with John Rankin

by Vanessa Murphree


John Rankin, one of New Orleans best-known guitar and banjo performers, innocently entered the New Orleans music arena as a teenager, as his mother, Betty "Big Mama" Rankin compiled the New Orleans jazz archives at Tulane University and introduced him to a bountiful collection of influential artists. Big Mama proceeded to become one of WWOZ's best-loved and accomplished announcers with her New Orleans original jazz show, which ran from 1981 until her death in 1997. Meanwhile, John refined his abilities playing a blend of New Orleans style jazz, R&B, folk, blues, and jazz with 12 and 7 string guitars, a neck-rack harmonica, and a rich baritone voice. His resume includes everything from annual Jazz Fest engagements to strolling banjo to new age elegance.

John spent some time on a recent Saturday morning talking with WWOZ supporter Vanessa Murphree about his early influences, his career, and the New Orleans music community.

Murphree: With your mother's back ground, it's not surprising that you are a musician. Did your parents encourage your to pursue music?

Rankin: Though both my parents were [amateur] musicians--mom a classical pianist and cellist and dad a big band singer--neither were particulary concerned that we pursue music as children. We never had lessons.

Murphree:When did you realize that you had musical ability?

Rankin: I tried the trumpet in 5th grade and failed miserably. But by the time I was 15, I was enamored with the Kingston Trio. Also at that time, Peter, Paul and Mary were becoming popular. I was so caught up with these guys, that my mom bought be a cheap guitar--an Hawaiian lap style. Bill Russell, who knew mom from the Jazz Archives, rounded the neck and made it work for me. I started playing like crazy and got worked up on it. Then six or seven months later, Mom bought another better guitar--a bottom-of-the-line Gibson--that Paul Crawford, another New Orleans legend, found for her. It came from a police sergeant's closet. And Bill Russell fixed that one up as well. Dad had bought this terrific folk music box set with Pete Seeger, the Weavers--all the great artists. I'd listen to that and start figuring out the chords.
Murphree: Did you take lessons?

Rankin: No. It was strictly a self-taught approach. Basically I reinvented the wheel, the long hard stupid way. It never occurred to me to take a lesson and I often wonder if I'd have been better or worse off if I had. At the time, I was oblivious to my lack of skill. I might have gotten discouraged with an instructor, so maybe I was better off without. It's ironic that I now teach for a living. But as I do it, I remember that we all teach ourselve ultimately anyway; and become self-reliant. And I taught myself off those records.

Murphree: How did you diversify yourself?

Rankin: After I'd played for about six months, my mom, who'd been working at the Tulane Jazz Archives for several years, was beginning a new project that involved recording oral histories of New Orleans musicians. They were recording the musicians and taking notes of the music played around town. Mom was transcribing the interviews with the tape recorder, so she took me up there to record me. Boy, do I wish I had that tape, it'd be worth a big laugh. So at the same time she'd introduce me to music that she'd gotten excited about, music that I'd never been exposed to. We taped some records. Lightning Hopkins. Big Bill Broonzy, Jesse Fuller, who is one of the greats in the folk rag tradition. John Lee Hooker. Django Reinhardt. This was my introduction to these early blues and early jazz figures. I took the tape and practiced for a couple of nights and I was finished with Peter, Paul, and Mary. I was the Blues Man! The white uptown blues boy. A fabulous transcendence.

Murphree: Where is the jazz archive?

Rankin: It's on the top floor of the Tulane library. The William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archives. Bruce Raeburn is curator. He's Boyd Raeburn's son. They do incredible work. There's a tremendous number of books and resources. And the staff will help find out anything, regardless of your background.

Murphree: What about your professional career? When did it begin?

Rankin: I was about 15 when I adopted the blues and also at that time I hooked up with a friend, Robert Wood, and we started playing Cosimo's in the French Quarter, which is still there on Governor Nicholls. Another guy, Cappy, wanted our jobs and reported that we were underage. So we went to Bourbon and took his job at the Bayou Room, a folk club which is now the Maiden Voyage. It was great. Steven Stills had his first job there, and so did Jimmy Buffet. We played from 2-5 a.m. That was my introduction to the New Orleans music scene.

Murphree: How did your current style evolve?

Rankin: I went to college in Lafayette and started a band called "Ishi". We did everything. Sixties rock and roll. Grateful Dead. Jazz. But it's hard keeping that many people together, so the drummer and I fell into a lounge gig, which is how I worked my way through college. We knew all the uncool tunes of the time. After that, there was the road with a show band, then in New England, playing coffee house dues. I moved back to New Orleans in 1978 to go to graduate school and started developing my solo style then. I did do some work with bands, but realized that the best thing for me was solo because I could get up and running quickly. I did Tipitinia's on Wednesdays and the Maple Leaf, which became my anchor, on Sundays. Since that time, I've been identified as a strong solo player, though I do still play with many great bands and bring in a trio every year for Jazz Fest.

Murphree: Your work with bands seems pretty diversified. Do you have a standard group that you get together with?

Rankin: The best musicians are all free agents who work with lots of different bands. And the jobs are usually based on money and/or creativity. It's generally the rock and roll bands that play together 100 percent of the time, travel in the same bus, all that. It's terrific, but it's a lot harder to make a living that way. I do as many club jobs as I can under my own name. But when I get a band job, there are lots of great local artists who can come together and do a great performance.

Murphree: When did you start writing your own music?

Rankin: I started in college and wrote a lot after afterwards. Now, I write much less and it's mostly instrumental. I do come out with a few songs a year that I like.

Murphree: Any recording plans?

Rankin: I did a vinyl and cassette in 1984 with original music. There is a new one I want to get out in February, though I'm about two years behind. It's all instrumental New Orleans music and not much original. I really now want to start an original music project--not New Orleans and not blues, but high-energy and low-energy instrumentals. Also known as new age. I look at new age as an original music ethic. You must write your own pieces, just like rock and roll. If you don't do your own writing, it's not valid. It's part of the genre, which is derived from folk, classical, and a little jazz. Instrumental expression. I play a little of it in my live show. Either when the audience is listening intently or when they are talking so much that I want them to go home.

Murphree: Your live performances can be assorted. How does the audience respondwhen they expect blues and you give them New Age?

Rankin: It is frustrating for some people. But all in all, I think it's good for the musician and good for the artist. I tend to be introspective and get into colors and tonalities. Sometimes when I go out in front of people, I have to work to forget introspections. And it's terrific when I can. The great thing about performing is transcending your own shyness and withdrawal. Some people automatically do that .Some people cannot turn off extroversion. For me, it's the other way. I have this intimacy that I like to bring out. It's vulnerable. But it pays off.

Murphree: How did your mother's connection to WWOZ influence your career?

Rankin: As musician I can say that WWOZ is fabulous. You can just show up and get on air if the show is relevant to your genre. They'll play the music. I've done some of my New Age tunes on the Irish Show with Sean. I've played live on Duke's shows. We've all had some terrific times. I never played on Mom's show. But I made some tapes for her of her closing theme song that she played occasionally. She was very self-conscious in the beginning and thought that she'd embarrass her family, which was ludicrous. That's why she went by Big Mama rather than her real name.

It's astonishing when you think about how much public support there is for WWOZ today. When Jerry and Walter Brock came over from Texas to start a community station in New Orleans, it was one of the best things that could have ever happened musically. They wanted a good community radio station and thought New Orleans was the place. They were totally correct. Essentially, they started the station with no money and no experience. At that time, it was in the former second floor of Tipitina's. There was no air conditioning, and you could hear the trucks roaring by during the broadcast because the window had to be open. Ernie K-Doe had an outrageous wonderful show in those early days. They used to tape and rebroadcast rather than have a live show. It was a wonderful day-to-day existence, which really continued that way until the Jazz Fest underwrote it. The future was always on the fence. There has been a core group there a long time and many, like Hazel Schleuter and Katrina, that are still there today. Mom volunteered because of her interest in jazz and New Orleans music, and I was the one who told that she should be on the radio. And she tried it. Fumbling and so endearing at first. But she flourished.

They always wanted Mom to be on the board, though she never did. She was more comfortable away from the politics and maintained a place as an elder statesperson. People would see her having a great time with a positive attitude, thinking the best of everyone, and just not giving a damn. And that was far more valuable to the station than any political contributions she could have made. She brought a chipperness to her work there and to the station as a whole. And she was a mother figure to many many people--besides me.

Vanessa Murphree