STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
American blues, rock and folk legend Jorma Kaukonen has nothing to prove. Immortalized by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the greatest rock/acoustic guitarists of all-time, Kaukonen gained international prominence as a co-founding member of “The Jefferson Airplane.”
Following a highly successful seven years with the Airplane (a 1996 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee), Kaukonen is prospering. Currently touring with “Hot Tuna,” his sideline gig while a member of the Airplane, he is also flourishing as a solo artist.
His latest release, “Ain’t In No Hurry,” exemplifies what has endeared Kaukonen to his fans for decades. Offering a collection of some of his favorite old and new compositions, Kaukonen celebrates his life’s journey through song — where he has been and where he finds himself today at 74 years young.
Working alongside some of his most treasured fellow musicians, a list including former Jefferson Airplane and current Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, Larry Campbell, Justin Guip, Myron Hart, Barry Mitterhoff and Teresa Williams, Kaukonen’s signature acoustic guitar work and soothing vocal will hook you from the opening song.
“It’s sort of a cohesive album for me,” says Jorma Kaukonen, while on tour in Phoenix, Arizona. “I’ve been so fortunate, because I’ve gotten to wear a lot of hats in my career. The electric guitar to me is not as sociable. The acoustic guitar has always been a campfire thing to me. That’s how I started out — literally playing at campfires. I think that’s where I tend to go given my druthers. I think I’d rather do that. Don’t get me wrong. I love playing electric guitar. It’s a lot of fun, but the dialog is not as personal to me as it is with the acoustic guitar.
With an acoustic guitar, we could be sitting around a campfire.”
“Look at the guys I get to play with,” added Kaukonen. “It’s so much fun to me, to be able to play music with people that I like, which isn’t to say that I don’t like a lot of the other people that I’ve played with. We’re close friends at this time, and that’s a great thing.”
“When it was all said and done, just because of the way that I think and I write, I think it’s sort of a narrative about what I feel about where I was and life today — ” added Kaukonen, “looking back 50 years to the dawn of my guitar playing and stuff in general.”
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Kaukonen eventually found himself in San Francisco, Calif., at age 22, where he enrolled at Santa Clara University. Having played in bands back east, the self-proclaimed blues purist never intended to enter into the world of rock and roll.
By 1965, Kaukonen was earning a living giving guitar lessons and soloing in coffee houses.
An invitation by fellow guitarist Paul Kantner to attend a Jefferson Airplane rehearsal led to Kaukonen becoming a co-founding member of the band. His unique electric guitar work and picking style complimented the musical direction of the Jefferson Airplane and solidified his standing as an integral part of group.
Featuring a line-up of Jorma Kaukonen (guitar), Paul Kantner (guitar), Jack Casady (bass), Grace Slick (vocals), Marty Balin (vocals) and Spencer Dryden (drums), the Jefferson Airplane experienced unforeseen success as one of the decade’s prominent acts.
A poster child for the psychedelic era’s counter culture, “The Airplane,” as they were fondly referred to, performed at three of the decade’s most visible music festivals (“Monterey” (1967), “Woodstock and “Altamont” (both in 1969)), and headlined the first “Isle of Wight Festival”(1968). The band’s 1967 album “Surrealistic Pillow” spawned two of rock’s all-time greatest singles, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
By 1972, the Jefferson Airplane’s tenure among the rock and roll elite had come to an end.
“In my opinion, we were ready to quit, and that’s OK,” recalls Kaukonen. “Getting a chance to play with that group of incredibly talented people — we were such an idiosyncratic band — it was fresh. We couldn’t have been luckier as young musicians. We got successful early in our career. We had a great seven years.“
Seeking to expand their artistic freedom, Kaukonen and Casady formed the first incarnation of “Hot Tuna” in 1969. Offering varied line-ups of musicians over the years, the duo has remained at the helm, releasing a collection of live and studio albums while performing all over the world.
Kaukonen continued with Hot Tuna while launching a solo career with his critically acclaimed 1974 debut album “Quah.” With more than a dozen solo efforts to his credit, Kaukonen earned a Grammy nomination for his 2002 “Blue Country Heart” album.
“I’m sort of amazed by the success that I’ve had,” says Kaukonen. “I don’t know if I’m right about this, but I think whether it is me solo or me with my Jorma’s guys or me with Jack Casady, what you see is what you get. Perhaps that honesty is what it is. Other than that, I really couldn’t say, except that I’m sure grateful for it.”
In an effort to give back to aspiring musicians, Kaukonen and his wife Vanessa founded and still operate the 119-acre “Fur Peace Ranch” in the town of Pomeroy, situated in the hills of southeast Ohio.
“The Fur Peace Ranch is in its 18th year,” says Kaukonen proudly. “It has turned out in a way that neither myself nor Vanessa could possibly imagine. We just have some wonderful people — both teachers and students — that come through the camp. The musical community that has grown out of that is just really cool. You meet all of these really like-minded spirits. It’s just a really comfortable place to be. How good does it have to get?!”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Jefferson Airplane, and, while it is unlikely there will be a reunion, Kaukonen acknowledges the role that “The Airplane” played in his career and his life.
“Maybe one of the reasons why we are having this conversation today is my exposure to the Airplane,” says Kaukonen. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that. But that was then, and this is now.”
In spite of his success, Kaukonen remains humble and grateful for his craft and the family that has supported his journey.
“I’d like to think I am a pretty regular guy at this point. I’ve got a great gig, but at the end of the day, a gig is a gig. The fact that people enjoy listening to what I do is just frosting on the cake.”
“One of the things that is important to me is trying to keep myself right sized. My wife and daughter make it really easy for me to do that. They are not buying into this superstar stuff at all, and that’s the way it ought to be.”
IF YOU GO
What: Jorma Kaukonen
Where: Colonial Theatre, 227 Bridge St., Phoenixville.
When: Performance is at 8 p.m. Friday, March 6.
Info.: Tickets are available at the Colonial Theatre Box Office by calling (610) 917-1228 or online at www.thecolonialtheatre.com. All ages are welcome at the Colonial. To stay up to date with Jorma Kaukonen visit www.jormakaukonen.com