"I miss the musical camaraderie of the past… the music is alive and well!"
Jorma Kaukonen: Living, Learning, Loving
In a career that has already spanned a half-century, Jorma Kaukonen has been the leading practitioner and teacher of fingerstyle guitar, one of the most highly respected interpreters of American roots music, blues, and Americana, and at the forefront of popular rock-and-roll. He was a founding member of two legendary bands, The Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna, a Grammy nominee, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the most in-demand instructor in the galaxy of stars who teach at the Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp that he and his wife operate in picturesque Southeastern Ohio. The son of a State Department official, Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen Jr, was born and raised in the Washington D.C. area, with occasional extended trips outside the United States. He was a devotee of rock-and-roll in the Buddy Holly era but soon developed a love for the blues and bluegrass that were profuse in the clubs and concerts in the nation’s capitol. He wanted to take up guitar and make that kind of music himself. Soon he met Jack Casady, the younger brother of a friend and a guitar player in his own right. Though they could not have known it, they were beginning a musical partnership that has continues for over 50 years. (Photo by Scotty Hall)
Jorma (Kaukonen is a Finnish name) graduated from high school and headed off for Antioch College in Ohio, where he met Ian Buchanan, who introduced him to the elaborate fingerstyle fretwork of the Rev. Gary Davis. A work-study program in New York introduced the increasingly skilled guitarist to that city’s burgeoning folk-blues-bluegrass scene and many of its players. After a break from college and travel overseas, Jorma moved to California, where he returned to classes and earned money by teaching guitar. It was at this time, that a banjo-playing friend invited him to join a rock band, and although Jorma’s true passion was roots music, he decided to join. In fact, the new band The Jefferson Airplane got its name from Jorma, who was given the joke nickname Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane, parodying the names of blues legends. Jorma invited his old musical partner Jack Casady to come out to San Francisco and play electric bass for The Jefferson Airplane, and together they created much of The Jefferson Airplane’s signature sound. Jorma and Jack would jam whenever they could and would sometimes perform sets within sets at Airplane concerts. The two would often play clubs following Airplane performances. Making a name for themselves as a duo, they struck a record deal, and Hot Tuna was born. Jorma left The Jefferson Airplane after the band’s most productive five years, pursuing his full-time job with Hot Tuna. Over the next four decades Hot Tuna would perform thousands of concerts and release more than two-dozen records. The musicians who performed with them were many and widely varied, as were their styles - from acoustic to long and loud electric jams but never straying far from their musical roots. What is remarkable is that they have never coasted. Hot Tuna today sounds better than ever, playing with the energy of their youth and the skill that they have developed over the year. Jorma just released (on February 17, 2015) a new studio album, Ain't In No Hurry, the tracklist is a collection of classic American songs, blues, rockers and Jorma originals including a lost Woody Guthrie lyric set to music by Jorma and Larry Campbell.
When was your first desire to become involved in music & what are your first musical memories?
My Mom and Dad played piano and other instruments around the house. They sang and there was always music on the radio.
Who were your first idols & what have been some of your musical influences?
My first idols were... Bill Haley And The Comets, Les Paul And Mary Ford.
How do you describe Jorma Kaukonen sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?
I think my sound is pure American… tinged by influences from my Russian and Finnish Grandparents. The songs themselves are quite simply American. My music and philosophy are the same… to tell stories.
What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
The first two songs I learned were Down In The Willow Garden and a Flatt And Scruggs number, Jimmy Brown The Newsboy.
What first attracted you to the Blues and what does the BLUES mean to you?
The music, the rhythms, the truth of the material and the great sounds.
Why did you think that the American Roots music continues to generate such a devoted following?
Because the music tells the truth.
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?
I guess just living life itself is the greatest experience. The best advice was, ‘It’s what you don’t play that counts.'
"I think my sound is pure American… tinged by influences from my Russian and Finnish Grandparents. The songs themselves are quite simply American. My music and philosophy are the same… to tell stories." (Jorma Kaukonen with his Harley-Davidson / Photo by Scotty Hall)
Difficult question, but who of the people you have worked with do you considers the best?
It's an impossible question. I've worked with so many great ones over the years.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best moments are yet to come and I been so fortunate not to have any real bad ones.
Which is the most interesting period in your life?
The current one... I'm a live in the moment kind of guy.
Who impressed you musically in the early 60s, both in American blues and across the water?
In the early sixties, Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Champion Jack Dupree, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, BB King... across the water, John Mayall and the various guys he introduced us too.
Looking back over many years of music is there anything you wish you’d done that you hadn’t?
"Many of us came out of folk music… the psychodelic thing was a natural progressions..."
Why do you play GUITAR?
The guitar is an instrument without boundaries... It is to me the most personal of instruments.
Where did you pick up your guitar style?
Ian Buchanan really set me on my path but I've listened to many.
Three words to describe your sound and progress?
Living, Learning, Loving!
How was your relationship with the other bands of ‘60s?
Good... we were all friends.
Tell me a few things about the story of “The Triumphs”...
Today in the States kids have garage bands... we had a living room band... the car was in the garage. We loved to play music and the Triumphs was our band.
In which tune can someone hear the best of your work?
Smokerise Journey on Steady As She Goes.
Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
Well, all three of course but the heart and soul are the most important.
What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?
"The best moments are yet to come and I been so fortunate not to have any real bad ones."
You have traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?
The world is filled with wonderful people.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
I miss the musical camaraderie of the past… the music is alive and well!
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
More visibility for wooden music...
What were the reasons that made your generation to start the Psychedelic Folk/Rock searches and experiments?
Many of us came out of folk music… the psychodelic thing was a natural progressions...
What do you miss most from the ‘60s?
Well, being young of course... but seriously the relevance of the music to the fabric of society.
Were there any places where you did especially well from ‘60?
Northeast United States.
Which is the most interesting period in blues scene and why?
I think the mid fifties to mid sixties because of the great musical advances.
Woodstock and Tanglewood.
"The desire to play endlessly and the desire to be heard."
(Photo: Jefferson Airplane, Woodstock, 1969/ CORBIS)
Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs in Woodstock & Monterey?
Organized chaos at Woodstock... new artists at Monterey
Do you remember any funny from the recording hours with Jefferson?
Recording feedback for the House At Pooneil Corners on Baxters.
What does the Jeffersons stand for Grace Slick? Signe Anderson or Grace?
Well, they're both so different... Grace set the standard though.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Rock and Americana music?
The paths are many… the way is one...
Of all the many albums the Jefferson & Hot Tuna made, what was your favorites?
Surrealistic Pillow for Airplane and Steady As She Goes for Tuna.
Tell me about the beginning of Hot Tuna. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
A song by Blind Boy Fuller... Keep On Trucking Mama... the Lyric... 'What's that smell like fish O Baby?' The answer, 'Hot Tuna.' Hot Tuna was a natural outgrowth for Jack and Me.
Why did you think that Hot Tuna continued to generate such a devoted following?
Three words to describe Hot Tuna?
Honest, real, traiditional!
"More visibility for wooden music..." (Photo: Hot Tuna from third album "Burgers", Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Papa John Creach and drummer Sammy Piazza)
Did you ever expect, when you started recording, that the group would become such a big hit?
Are there any memories of Hot Tuna which you’d like to share with us?
Too many to mention.
What characterized the sound of San Francisco?
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?
Timeless music. It's truth!
Blues is the background to so much modern music. Why do you think that is?
It's incredibly cool!
Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in SF at the 60s
Most of the musicians were old folkies and folkies love the blues.
"The guitar is an instrument without boundaries...It is to me the most personal of instruments." (Photo © Jim Marshall Photograph / For a Look magazine story, Marshall aimed his wide-angle lens at the two-year-old Airplane peering down upon him. The 1967 lineup included: Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, Spencer Dryden and Jack Casady)
Who are your favorite bands from ‘60s & of all the people you’ve meet, who do you admire the most?
The Band, Cream... again, I've met many people I admire. Hard to categorize.
What do you think of PSYCHEDELIC music & how close is to BLUES?
The two go well together.
Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?
The old are too many to mention... I don't know much about the new... The last record I bought was Awkward Annie by Kate Rusby.
How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
Not much except for downloading.
How did you first meet Janis & what advice would you had given her?
"The best moments are yet to come and I been so fortunate not to have any real bad ones."
What do you miss most the Family Dog?
My old friends...
Any comments about your experiences in Fillmore and Avalon?
They always had very eclectic shows.
Are there any similarities between the music todays and the '60s?
In the singer song writer world yes. I don't think that the music today has the sweeping social power music had in the Sixties.
What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom at the sixties?
The people who got turned into blues in the fifties had learned to play it by the sixties.
How is your relationship today with the other bands and musicians of ‘60s?
I don't see many of them often.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
Ellis Island and the late 1800’s… I would have liked to see my grandparents land in America.
One of the great bass players of all times and a great friend.
"The blues is timeless music. It's truth!" (Photo: Jorma & Jack Casady)
How did you first meet Papa John Creach?
Winterland in the early 70's.
What were your favorite guitars back then? Do you prefer playing acoustic or electric guitar?
Gibsons... I love both acoustic and electric but acoustic is closet to my heart.
Where do you get inspiration for your songs & what musicians have influenced you most as a songwriter?
Inspiration from life.
Are there any songs that you've written where the lyrics are very personal for you?
Genesis... Things That Might Have Been, Second Chances.
What are some of your favorite blues standards?
The Thrill Is Gone, and any from Buddy Guy's Songs.
What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a musician?
The desire to play endlessly and the desire to be heard.
"In the early sixties, Rev. Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Champion Jack Dupree, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Buddy Guy, BB King... across the water, John Mayall and the various guys he introduced us too." (Photo: Jorma Kaukonen, ca. 1970s)
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Love more than almost anything.
The “Fur Peace Ranch”, how did this project come about?
We had a beautiful farm and a desire to host musicians... music needs to be passed on.
What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from “Fur Peace Ranch” events?
Having David Nelson an the New Riders Of The Purple Sage at the Ranch… we played music… and laughed all night!
I would like to put a song - that characterizes them - next to the names:
Jack Casady: Water Song...Papa John Creach: John's Other...Rev Gary Davis: I Am The Light Of This World...Jorma Kaukonen: River Of Time
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