Jorma Kaukonen is one of the most important guitarists of our time with a body of work lasting over three decades. His brilliant finger-picked fretwork and songwriting, a compelling blend of rock, blues, folk and country influences, has distinguished Jefferson Airplane and its equally legendary (and still active) spinoff band Hot Tuna.
Jorma Kaukonen has just completed Blue Country Heart, his debut recording for Columbia Records, currently scheduled for a June release. Exploring a unique chapter in American music history, Jorma interprets an intriguing collection of rural blues and country-flavored songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring songs by tunesmiths such as Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, Slim Smith, Washington Phillips, Cliff Carlisle and Jimmy “The Singing Governor” Davis, this album reveals a new turn in Kaukonen’s ever evolving career. Joining Jorma in the studio are Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Byron House on upright bass. Special guest Béla Fleck plays banjo on two tracks.
Jorma and wife/manager Vanessa Lillian are in the midst of the fifth year of operations at their successful Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. Situated on 119 acres in the Appalachian foothills, the site includes a 32 track recording studio, concert hall, a music library and a gourmet kitchen and dining hall. With weekend workshops scheduled from February to November, the camp presents a chance for students of all ages and abilities to learn directly from the musicians who first influenced and inspired them as listeners and players. Gathering such outstanding artists and teachers in such a pristine and relaxed country setting, a place which remains concurrently rustic and comfortable, has allowed Jorma to create what he calls “a positive place to better explore the potential of your favorite instrument.”
In addition to Jorma’s own workshops, a typical weekend session might include Peter Rowan, Guy Clark, G.E. Smith or Chris Smither instructing different styles of blues guitar, teaching guitar repair, or Jorma’s longtime musical partner (and fellow Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna founder) Jack Casady explaining the intricacies of bass guitar. “We’re very fortunate,” says Jorma. “We really have great guest instructors, and everybody’s been having a really great time.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Jorma grew up overseas (his father was a member of the U.S. foreign service). He returned stateside at age 16 and immersed himself in the old-time country of the Carter Family and Roy Acuff. The blues soon grabbed young Jorma’s ear; the Chess label LPs of Chicago icons Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson mesmerized him. “I always tell people the music really chose me,” he says. “The first time I heard that, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do.” He first teamed up with Jack Casady while still in high school around 1957 to start a rock band together.
In 1961, Jorma transferred to the University of Santa Clara in California, where he played folk clubs and passed along his guitar knowledge. “I started teaching when I didn’t have much to teach,” he says. “I always really enjoyed it. And I still really enjoy it. It’s really nice for me to be able to give a little bit back of all the wonderful things that were so freely given me.”
“When I took off for the blues, it was Rev. Gary Davis,” says Jorma, who first encountered Davis’ amazing finger-picking guitar technique in 1959 while attending Antioch College on a work-study program out of New York. “A guy who was in the house with me, his name was Ian Buchanan, a player in New York, had been studying with the Reverend,” says Jorma. “And he was a very accomplished player at the time. He probably was so irritated by my thrashing next door to his room that he took it upon himself to teach me the guitar, which he really did. His muse was the Rev., so that’s what he turned me on to, and I just fell in love with his stuff. And I’m in love with it to this day.” During the early ’70s with Hot Tuna, Jorma reintroduced several of Davis’ seminal songs to a new generation of appreciative fans.
Jorma joined a certain fledgling rock band in 1965. “Paul Kantner had been living in San Jose, where I was living,” he says. “We were friends, and he got together with Marty Balin, and they started Jefferson Airplane. I had just graduated from college, and they wanted a lead guitar player. I guess they didn’t have one. They asked me, and I was kind of reluctant, because I was really into the blues: ‘I don’t know if I want to do this or not.’ But I did get seduced by the music, and wound up having a lot of fun for a couple of years.”
It was Jorma who named the band. “I had this friend up in Berkeley, Steve Talbot, and he came up with funny names for people,” explains Jorma. “His name for me was Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking for band names and nobody could come up with something, I remember saying, ‘You want a silly band name? I got a silly band name for you!’”
Installing Grace Slick as their lead singer, Jefferson Airplane rocketed to superstardom in 1967 on the initial strength of their hits “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit,” making them a cornerstone of San Francisco’s burgeoning rock scene. Jorma’s ground-breaking acoustic piece “Embryonic Journey” was a highlight of Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane’s 1967 breakthrough album. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
In 1970, Kaukonen and Casady found time between Airplane gigs to put together another uniquely named aggregation, the blues-influenced Hot Tuna. “The first Hot Tuna record was all stuff that I had been playing myself for years,” says Jorma. “We were very fortunate–we were able to open some shows for ourselves as Hot Tuna with Jefferson Airplane. Paul let us play some insert songs. As the Airplane became less fun for whatever reason, Hot Tuna became more fun. Finally we just couldn’t do both, and we had to make a decision. I took Hot Tuna.”
What began as a musical “bluesman’s holiday” from Jorma and Jack’s day job with the Jefferson Airplane, has now endured for 30 years, and a prodigious recording longevity of over 27 albums. There have been many transformations throughout. From the addition of electric violin player Papa John Creech to the lineup for First Pull up, Then Pull Down and Burgers, to the deafening volume featured on albums such as America’s Choice and Hopkorv, jokingly referred to these days by Jack and Jorma as “Hot Tuna: The Metal Years.”
Recently, Kaukonen and Casady have returned to their acoustic past and are currently touring as a duo. Featuring Jorma’s brilliant finger-picked fretwork and songwriting and Jack’s expert melodic bass work, these shows are an opportunity to witness two lifelong friends coming together once again to make extraordinary music.
Most recently, Jorma and Jack have performed music scored by Mark Isham for the upcoming Disney distributed film Goodbye Hello. Written, directed and produced by Brad Silberling, the film stars Susan Sarandon, Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter, Jake Gyllenhaal and newcomer Ellen Pompeo. Set in the 70s, the film tells the story of two parents who take in the fiancee of their recently murdered daughter. Jorma and Jack have brought their unique artistry to the project and have created what Kaukonen calls “a sonic landscape that enhances the mood of the film.” Comprising about 20 minutes of the score, Jack and Jorma performed 6 cues/vignettes as well as the film’s closing piece to be played as the credits scroll.
From the mind bending psychedelia of the mid 60′s Airplane to the stark blues and country of Hot Tuna and later projects, Jorma Kaukonen’s work has always been distinctly American. From dizzying electric guitar gymnastics to breathtaking solo acoustic work, the music of this consummate artist has remained both of and ahead of his time. With over 40 albums spanning his solo and band career, he has forged his own legacy in American Music.