After a lifelong journey in music, from his first professional gigs with the Jefferson Airplane from 1965-1972 to his ongoing collaborations with longtime partner Jorma Kaukonen in Hot Tuna, bassist Jack Casady feels extremely pleased with where he is at right now. While Casady has distinguished himself in a career that spans four decades, he remains excited about entering his fifth decade as a working musician.
“The main issue is I love to play the bass guitar,” says the 57-year-old rock bass icon. “It thrills me more now than ever. I think it’s a mistake to try and chase your youth. It’s better to play like the person you are at the age you are. Things change as you get older and you bring different qualities to the music. The craftwork in really learning the subtleties of the instrument is a lifelong project.”
Growing up in D.C. in the ’50s, Casady was exposed to music at an early age through his older brother and his father, William Robert Casady. “My brother had a blues collection and I had started collecting records myself when I was around 12,” he recalls. “My father was a dentist but he was also an audiophile and an electronics enthusiast. He would build high fidelity stuff by Heathkit — tvs, scound equipment and whatnot. He built a ’50s style recreation room with knotty pine walls and naugahyde red upholstery in the basement and set up a turntable with a big 15-inch speaker for listening sessions. He loved music and belonged to the American Jazz Society. Every month he’d get various jazz records which we’d listen to. And from that I got hooked on music.”
Jack’s appreciation for music manifested itself in learning how to play the guitar at age 12. His first instrument was a Washburn nylon string guitar which he had found in the attic of his parents’ house shortly before Christmas of 1956. As he recalls, “When I found that guitar up there in the attic I started plunking around on it, even though it only had four strings. Suddenly it disappeared and I really didn’t think too much of it. Then on Christmas Day I noticed an envelope for me on the tree. I opened it up and it read, ‘We fixed up that guitar in the attic. It was supposed to be ready in time for Christmas but it won’t be ready until next week. Meanwhile, this entitles you to 12 guitar lessons.’ So that basically started me off on my career.”
Jack began his lessons with Harry Voohees, a Swing Era guitarist who had played with many of the famous big bands of the ’30s and ’40s. Later on he continued lessons with Bill Harris, the guitarist for The Clovers. “I took guitar lessons for a period of a year and a half,” he recalls. “During that time I also sold newspapers like many a lad at that time. At the peak I was delivering 450 papers in the morning and the afternoon– morning Washington Post and the evening Star . And the object of this and my side business of cutting neighborhood lawns was to get enough money to buy an electric guitar and an amplifier.”
By 1958, Jack had acquired his first electric guitar, a Gibson ES-125 with a single pickup. “But I really had my eye on a ’58 Fender Telecaster,” he recalls, “so I got my money together from this newspaper route and eventually bought that. And I was off to the races.” His first amplifier was a model that he had helped his father build at home from a kit. “It had a 8 watt power amplifier and a one 8-inch speakers,” he recalls. “We built the whole thing from scratch on the dining room table every night after dinner. We’d set up shop, do the soldering, follow the diagrams and slowly put it together. Boy, I wish I had that amp today. Of course, I wish I had the Telecaster today. I wish I had kept everything from those days.”
By the time he was 13 or 14, Jack met Jorma Kaukonen, a budding guitarist in the neighborhood who was a few years older and attended the high school a block and a half away from the junior high school where young Casady attended. “When I met Jorma I already had my guitar and a thriving blues and r&b record collection. He’d come over to visit with my older brother but we struck up a friendship and ended up playing a little together, just doing covers by Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and whatever things were going on at the time.” Jack also had an appreciation for bluegrass and old-timey country music, which was regularly performed around town. “Washington D.C. was a wonderful place to grow up because it was the crossroads of all those styles — rhythm ‘n’ blues, blues, country music and bluegrass coming through the Appalachians. And all of those things could be heard at the local clubs. At the same time, I had the opportunity to hear classical music being performed at the famed Constitution Hall. So all of those influences were mixed together. One night I’d be down at the Howard Theater seeing Ray Charles, the next night I would be at the Shamrock Tavern in Georgetown hearing Mac Weisman, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs among other bluegrass people. And the next night it would be jazz — people like Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk. Plus, we had the Library of Congress nearby. You could go down there and lock yourself in a room and listen to Alan Lomax field recordings or listen to music of the rainforest or whatever. So I was really just a sponge soaking up a lot of this stuff.”
His curiosity and hunger for seeking out sounds naturally led Jack on a path he has been pursuing ever since. As he puts it, “I think the thing I was most grateful for was finding that one thing I was really passionate about in life. And that one thing was music. It really took me away from the normal kind of teenage drudgery that follows you around. For me, music was the great escape.”
By 1959, Jack and Jorma had formed a band called The Triumphs with drummer Ronnie McDonald and Warren Smith. As Jack recalls, “I played lead guitar, Jorma played rhythm guitar and sang. The PA system was a Wollensac tape recorder put in the monitor mode so Jorma’s vocals were coming through a 3-inch speaker. It was kind of raw but it was fun while it lasted.”
The following year, Jorma graduated from high school and went to Antioch College, where his interest in folk music deepened and his fingerpicking chops blossomed. “By the end of the ’50s, the popular music scene had taken a downturn,” Jack explains. “After the payola scandal the industry wanted to clean things up, so all of a sudden you had Pat Boone singing Little Richard tunes. It just wasn’t the same. So then the interest for me shifted into the folk music of America while my older brother became interested in English folk music and ballads and also Irish music. A lot of people got caught up in the folk music revival in the early ’60s.”
But while his musical interests broadened, Jack continued working with various cover bands around the D.C. area. “There was a certain kind of music that you played in clubs during those days — lots of Louis Prima and Ray Charles songs,” he explains. “And the bands that formed back then were mostly bigger small ensembles with at least two or three saxes. In D.C., that was sort of a scene unto itself.”
By age 16, Jack got a call to fill in for a bass player on a gig. It proved to be the beginning of a longstanding career as a bassist. “As soon as I started playing bass my work quota expanded tremendously,” he recalls. “And I started falling in love with the instrument. There was just a certain sound, that register of the bass and also the higher register of the bass which is kind of going into the cello range that I really was attracted to.”
With the aid of a forged ID, made on Jorma’s grandfather’s copy machine, the under-age Casady began working at various clubs around the D.C. area. “Later on I hooked up with various bluegrass and country bands playing on the fair circuit. We’d also go up and play the beaches along the New Jersey shore. It was a great education and an interesting time for me being that young and yet being in what was considered an adult world. I mean, I’d go back to high school in the morning after spending all night playing in some club backing up Little Anthony & The Imperials. And now that I look at some of the pictures from those days, there’s no way I could pass for 18(the drinking age at that time).”
In the early ’60s, Jack did some extended gigging in Florida with his D.C. colleague Dick Heinze before enrolling in Montgomery Junior College in 1963. By 1964, the music scene had changed. Beatlesmania was starting to come on strong in the States, which shifted the nature of the club scene and greatly affected the working musicians. “I was kind of discouraged by it all,” says Jack in retrospect. “I would still play with bands on weekends and things like that. But at that point I was kind of lost.”
Then in September of 1965, Casady got a fateful call from his old friend Jorma Kaukonen, who had transferred from Antioch College to Santa Clare University in San Francisco and became immersed in a new music scene developing there. As Jack recalls, “Jorma told me he had joined a band called Jefferson Airplane and I kind of laughed at the name. He asked me what I was doing and seemed surprised to hear that I was playing the bass. Then he says, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve got a bass player in this band that I’m not fond of. It’s not working out, in my opinion.’ So then he says, ‘Let me call you back.’ A few minutes later he calls back and says, ‘We got this band. We got a manager. And the manager promises to pay us $50 a week whether we “worked or not.” What do you think?’ And I said, You’re on!’”
Jack quit school in the middle of October of ’65 and came out to San Francisco to join the Jefferson Airplane. “And there began my career in earnest,” says the bassist who became renowned for the inventive, melodic lines he contributed during his seven-year tenure with the band “What was great for me was the opportunity of coming to San Francisco in that environment in the mid ’60s where you had a lot of people who didn’t even come from as much of a professional background as I had but had picked up a guitar in college and wanted to expression themselves in original ways. You had a tremendous number of middle class white kids trying desperately to do anything their parents didn’t. And all these kids were suddenly out there playing instruments, making up songs. And that whole coming together aspect created some different music, most of it not keeping up to professional polish of other areas of the country, but still, people wanted to make their own statement. And so I found myself in this band that I thought was the craziest band I had ever seen.”
Paul Kantner came from a folk music background as a fan of Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Marty Balin came from a pop background and had previously recorded a couple of singles in the early ’60s. Kaukonen was an accomplished fingerpicking stylist in the tradition of Rev. Gary Davis. The drummer, Skip Spence, was a frustrated guitar player. The original singer was Signey Anderson and Casady with his R&B background.
“We had a format to play four nights a week and get material together,” says Jack of those early Airplane days. “At our first gigs, the music writer Ralph Gleason liked us and gave us good reviews, which led to a record contract with RCA. And it was a fairly unique deal for the time. We made everybody an equal in terms of payment and participation.”
That band’s debut for RCA, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off , was recorded in February of ’66 and released in August of that year. “It had somewhat of a local success,” explains Jack. “It was the material that we had been playing as a group around the Bay area for a while. We recorded it on 3-track, all pretty much live performances.”
When the group’s originally singer Signe Anderson left the group in late 1966 to have a baby, she was replaced by the lead singer in another San Francisco band called The Great Society. Grace Slick not only brought her distinctive voice to the group but also two potent songs in “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” a drug-oriented song which developed Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through The Looking Glass” via its acid connotations. Both songs (from 1967′s Surrealistic Pillow ) became hit singles and served as a rallying point for the emerging Haight Ashbury freak community. “That album was really a unique statement,” says Casady in retrospect. “There were a lot of different styles of songs contributed by everybody, including an an instrumental acoustic fingerpicking original tune by Jorma called ‘Embryonic Journey.’ It was quite an eclectic album and it still holds up today.”
The Jefferson Airplane subsequently released a string of acclaimed recordings –After Bathing At Baxter’s (late ’67), Crown of Creation (’68), the live Bless Its Pointed Little Head (’69), Volunteers (’70), Bark (’71), Long John Silver (’72) and the live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland (1973). Meanwhile, by 1970, Kaukonen and Casady had established Hot Tuna as a blues-drenched spin-off band that sometimes opened for the Airplane in concert.
By the end of 1972, the Jefferson Airplane disbanded. Jorma and Jack continued to pursue Hot Tuna while Grace Slick and Paul Kantner went on to form the Jefferson Starship. “We formed Hot Tuna basically because we were young and had endless energy,” says Casady, “and there was so much material going into the Airplane from everybody it ended up that you’d only get a couple of songs per session. And also we wanted to play a style of music that wasn’t being played by the Airplane. And we kept that up along with Jefferson Airplane up until ’72, when we decided it was too much to continue the Airplane.”
Starting initially as an acoustic trio and later adding veteran fiddler Papa John Creach when they went electric, Hot Tuna recorded a series of albums through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s and continues to perform and record to this day.
Hot Tuna did have a hiatus from 1979 to 1982, during which time Casady formed his own rock band. “But Jorma and I got together in ’83 and have played regularly since then.” For the past three years, Casady has also been involved as a bass guitar instructor at Jorma’s Fur Peace Guitar Ranch. A more recent project was his participation in a tribute recording to the late Allman Brothers bassist Alan Woody. “I knew Alan quite well,” says Jack. “He was a fan of mine and a very nice guy. We’ve had a number of conversations together and often found ourselves talking a lot of shop about basses. So I was very pleased to be involved in this project honoring Alan’s memory.”
Inspired by recent acoustic duo tours with Kaukonen, Casady finds that his own musicianship has reached new levels. “I can’t remember having as much fun but also musically being so in touch and in the moment with the music as I am now; where every minute, every note counts on stage. And I find it really unique that I have a situation with a partner of 42 years now where we can just really enjoy the craft of making music together.”