“I have three jobs,” John Rankin says with a smile as he sits in his home off Bayou St. John surrounded by guitars and sheet music. “Teaching private lessons, teaching at Loyola, and playing gigs. I love all three.”
Rankin, the 2011 recipient of OffBeat’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Education, moved to New Orleans when his father got a job teaching at Tulane. “The job paid so little when he got here that Tulane promised they’d give my mother a job,” he said.
A job came up with the foundation of the Jazz Archives in 1957. “Mom worked for the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane as an administrator and got really involved in traditional jazz. She was the kind of person who smoothed down some of the personalities of the older musicians. People in bands will know what I’m talking about,” he said.
Rankin arrived in New Orleans when he was nine and started playing guitar at fourteen. “My mom had Bill Russell—who was curator at the archives—buy a guitar for me in the French Market. After I’d been playing guitar for six months, she took me up there and recorded me on the reel to reel tape player the archives had so I could hear myself play. Unfortunately, I’ve lost that recording. She said ‘by the way, you want to hear some of these?’ They had recordings of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Django Reinhardt, and Jesse Fuller, all these great guitar players, and that was enormously influential to me. Mom took me to see brass bands, jazz funerals, different events she brought me to when I was in high school. So she exposed me to that culture. She was much more of a purveyor of the players and traditions than me. Plus, she brought me to see Louis Armstrong at the Loyola Fieldhouse. That was a life changing event, and it was my mother’s music!” Rankin says that musically it all helped him get “prematurely mature.”
“Dad had bought a reel to reel machine. I confiscated it and played with it, used it, recorded myself and listened to those tapes,” he said. “I had this burning desire to p-l-a-y. I just wanted to feel and play guitar. I just knew it was the right thing for me. I didn’t know anything beyond that.”
Rankin majored in English at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. After a semester, he told a faculty member he was considering music but wasn’t sure if he was good enough. “I didn’t know anything. I entered school without reading music or even knowing a major scale. The faculty member said, ‘Well could it hurt?’ I said, ‘No, it couldn’t hurt’ and thought ‘oops! That’s all the justification I need.’ So I switched majors, spent five years in college. I took extra classes, lots of extra music, history and English.”
“I majored in music theory and composition, studied all the instruments except guitar,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t have a guitar class. I played flute for five years and got very proficient at it, studied piano, trumpet, upright bass and percussion. A few jazz lessons but all I learned about guitar was through the whole world of music.”
Rankin graduated, moved to the country, and formed a rock band playing the Beatles and the Grateful Dead “trying to copy Miles Davis and become a fusion-y group. I lived there a couple of years, went on the road and played, started traveling a lot on the East Coast and wound up in New England where I took lessons at Berklee College of Music.”
At 28 years old, he got a job teaching at a guitar school in Boston. “It was like a bell went off. My dad was a teacher at Tulane. I realized it was an honorable profession, a way I could continue to grow and still spend most of my day with music.”
Moving back to New Orleans for graduate school, he heard about a new radio station that was starting, WWOZ. “Mom had retired by then, and I told her she should go down and volunteer. She went down and started volunteering, typing and things like that, but they found out about her knowledge and asked her to do a show. You know, George Wein had come to town years earlier to start Jazz Fest and he went to Quint Davis and Alison Miner—the two people who started Jazz Fest—when both worked at the archives with my mom. In fact, Alison used to say she was her “real” mother, so my mom was the first volunteer at the very first Jazz Fest. She also knew all the real old jazz players, what they call ‘The Mens.’ The early Preservation Hall players, the old black survivors if you will, she knew all of them, and they knew her. ‘Mens’ invited her to their homes, parties, watched after her during jazz funerals. She was trusted and liked. Sweet lady. She knew where the boundaries were and she respected everybody so much that they respected her. She was a great person.”
On WWOZ, his mother called herself “Big Mama.” “She played the music of a lot of musicians who were still alive and working and she would talk about her experiences with them.”
Many people still say “Big Mama” gave credibility and respectability to OZ in the early days because of her education, knowledge and deep love of New Orleans music.
In graduate school at Tulane, Rankin majored in classical guitar. “I got into graduate school on a kiss and a prayer. It took three semesters of work. I had to learn all of this remedial material, do a recital, and get accepted. While I was finishing the other two years of guitar, I got an MBA as well.”
The business degree gave him a better perspective of where he was in the world. “It taught me the value of being a niche player, having a skill that’s unique.”
I ask how many students became professionals in his 30 plus years of teaching. “Well, hundreds, but some people I taught for one semester and a lot of those are very successful in the world. I might have taught them guitar, songwriting, or worked with them in an ensemble, so I can’t say that I’m their major influence. You know, teaching isn’t for everybody. I’ve had students tell me ‘I’d never want to be a teacher. I just want to play.’ But one of the best musicians I know of is now a full time teacher in school and loving it.”
Rankin has released several CDs which are as wide ranging as the musical road he has traveled. “I’m interested in a lot of different music, so I try to separate them into little pockets. I’ve got a songwriter record, a New Orleans jazz record, an instrumental acoustic guitar record—I’ve got that hodgepodge that’s New Orleans music.”
He feels blessed to have those two careers. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have to make up my mind about growing up and getting a ‘real job’ because I like both of them. I was actually going to quit teaching after Christmas 2014 to spend more time on bookings, but I’d miss Loyola too much. I like being around young people. I learn so much from them.”
Rankin summed up: “There are students I feel like I’ve had the greatest impact with, some are getting their PHDs in Math, some are jazz players but it’s not about who’s a professional or not, it’s about that relationship with the student. It’s special, you know? I had a student that started with me at eight years old, now he’s a captain in the navy running a physical therapy lab. Another now runs a church choir in Florida. He’s getting married now and he’s so happy. It’s about people. It’s about them becoming the best people.”