In a career that has already spanned nearly 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 for his highly acclaimed Blue Country Heart, and the most in-demand instructor in the galaxy of stars who teach at the guitar camp that he and his wife operate in picturesque Southeastern Ohio.
With Stars in My Crown, Jorma proves that he is continuing to explore and grow, and that he is at home in numerous musical genres.
The son of a State Department official, Jorma 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 make that kind of music himself. He wanted to take up guitar.
Jorma Kaukonen Sr., skeptical because his namesake had undertaken other instruments only to lose interest, said that if young Jorma would learn some songs on guitar he could have one. Not long after came a trip to the music store for the purchase of a shiny new Gibson.
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 continues to this day. Together they went to concerts and clubs all over town, but it was blues, jazz, and bluegrass clubs (where they often had to exaggerate their ages to get in) to which they kept returning.
Jorma graduated from high school and headed off for Antioch College in Ohio. There he met Ian Buchanan, from New York City, who introduced him to the elaborate fingerstyle fretwork of the Rev. Gary Davis. Jorma was hooked.
A work-study program in New York introduced the increasingly skilled Kaukonen to that city’s burgeoning folk-blues-bluegrass scene and many of its players. He would leave college and undertake overseas travels before returning to classes, this time in California. There he earned money by teaching guitar. A friend who taught banjo mentioned to Jorma he and another friend were thinking of starting a band - was Jorma interested?
Though he was less interested in rock than in the roots music that was his passion, Jorma decided to join. It would turn out he would even have something to do with the naming of the band. An acquaintance liked to tease his blues-playing friends by giving them nicknames which parodied those of blues legends. Jorma, he had decided, was “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.” When the new band needed a name, Jorma mentioned this, and thus the Jefferson Airplane was christened.
He sent word back to Washington, where his teenage musical partner Jack Casady had taken up electric bass. Did Jack want to come to San Francisco and be in a band?
The Kaukonen-Casady duo created much of the Jefferson Airplane’s signature sound, and Jorma’s lead and fingerstyle guitar playing characterizes some of the band’s most memorable tracks. But the folk and blues muse was strong. 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. A record deal was made and Hot Tuna was born. Jorma left the Jefferson Airplane after the band’s most productive five years. Hot Tuna had become a full-time job.
Over the next three and a half 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, to acoustic once again, but never straying far from their musical roots. (In recent years, an electric set has been reintroduced to some of their tour dates.) What is remarkable is that they have never coasted: Hot Tuna today sounds very much like Hot Tuna of 1970, except that the guys have continued to develop as musicians, so today they are even better.
Jorma has also had a succession of more than a dozen solo albums, beginning with 1974’s Quah and continuing through Blue Country Heart in 2002 and, now, the much-anticipated Stars in My Crown.
But performance and recording are only part of the story. On July 3, 1988, in Key West, Jorma met a young woman named Vanessa Lillian. He was a musician and she was a civil engineer, but there was a cross-discipline spark that quickly took flame. They married and have been together ever since, partners in every sense of the word.
The most obvious external manifestation of this partnership is Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp, located on a large tract of fields, woods, hills, and streams in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Since it opened in 1998, thousands of musicians whose skills range from basic to highly accomplished gather for weekends of master instruction offered by Jorma and other instructors who are leaders in their musical fields. A multitude of renowned performers make the trek to Ohio to teach at Fur Peace Ranch and play at the performance hall, Fur Peace Station. It has become an important stop on the touring circuit for artists who do not normally play intimate, 200-seat venues. It is a touchstone, one of those places to which artists are drawn, feel they simply must play. Students, instructors, and visiting artists alike welcome the peace and relaxation, as well as the great music and great instruction that Fur Peace Ranch offers. Jorma is quick to say that teaching is among the most rewarding aspects of his career.
The “new media” have been embraced by Jorma and his colleagues, with numerous professionally recorded solo and Hot Tuna concerts available for download at www.hottunatunes.com and an innovative instructional website, www.BreakDownWay.com, in which Jorma, Jack, and other master musicians provide online learning and support to students all over the world.
Along with the other members of The Jefferson Airplane, Jorma is a 1996 inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jorma and Jack continue to tour as Hot Tuna, in recent years with mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff and, more recently, joined by drummer Erik Diaz. Jorma also tours in support of his own recordings, with a long list of dates scheduled for Stars in My Crown.
The CD is an appropriate follow-up to the Grammy-nominated Blue Country Heart. While the 2002 CD paid tribute to rich, deep aspects of American roots music with Jorma performing the works of his favorite blues and country legends, Stars in My Crown is even more personal and is drawn from a far broader palette. It features an abundance of original songs, from “Late Breaking News”, “A Life Well Lived”, and “Living in The Moment”, to the deeply moving “Heart Temporary”, the result of a conversation between Jorma and Vanessa one morning at their Ohio farm home. It isn’t entirely original compositions, though, with songs of many styles, from Johnny Cash’s chilling “The Man Comes Around” to a reggae song, “By the Rivers of Babylon”, to the celebratory title cut, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown”.
His latest CD, River of Time (2009) is the perfect distillation of the journey, some 50 years after Kaukonen bought his first guitar.
Produced by Larry Campbell (Dylan Band) at Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio, River features Levon on drums and a cast of stellar musicians, including mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff. Campbell also plays and his wife Teresa Williams lends her outstanding vocal prowess.
Six of its thirteen songs are Jorma originals, a prolific showcase with themes of family, friends and inspired memory throughout.
The album also revisits the blues and country music that Jorma first fell in love with in his youth, featuring bright new interpretations of Mississippi John Hurt, Merle Haggard and Rev. Gary Davis . . . and pays tribute to old friend “Pigpen” Ron McKernan on the Grateful Dead’s “Operator.” Whether reinterpreting classics or crafting new originals and shimmering instrumentals, River of Time finds Jorma at the top of his game with inventive arrangements and his strongest songwriting to date.