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 Moonlight Mile. 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.
His album Blue Country Heart, his debut recording for Columbia Records, eExplores 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 B?la Fleck plays banjo on two tracks.
Jorma and wife/manager Vanessa Lillian operate a 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."
[Biography courtesy of Jorma Kaukonen].
Concert Review by Rob Turner
Jorma Kaukonen & Jon Shain at The Arts Center in Carrboro, North Carolina, February 19, 2000.
Jorma Kaukonen's return to the "triangle" area (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel
Hill) was part of a big weekend on Franklin Street just outside of
Chapel Hill. Literally two storefronts away the Smashing Pumpkins were
slated to perform a rare club date at Cat's Cradle. Unfortunately, two
of the original members of the band were unable to perform that night,
so the cogitative Billy Corgan performed most of the show solo. Word has
it he pulled it off just fine, by the way, some of his most hardcore
fans were actually delighted; while a handful took advantage of the
band's offer to redeem admission to any displeased patrons.
There was no refund seeking at The Arts Center on this night. These two
artists were planning on performing solo all along. Jorma Kaukonen,
veteran of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and so much more, was the
headline. His appearance was met with much excitement, as it was his
first area gig in an intimate setting since an appearance at Under The
Street in Durham seven years prior (almost to the date, 2/13/93). Jon
Shain, who opened for Hot Tuna as well as Kaukarano (Jorma's duo gig
with Michael Falzarano) a number of times as a member of Flyin' Mice,
was in a familiar pre-Kaukonen slot. (Jorma even sat in with the
now-defunct Mice a couple of times.) The combination of the return of a
legend, and one of the triangle's finest
singer/songwriters, made the show an easy sellout.
Jorma Kaukonen's set
Jon Shain's set:
Loan Me A Year
Child Of Tomorrow's Summers
New Year's Eve
One Way Gal
Step It Up And Go
Jon Shain was in the middle of a hell of a week. He and his wife had
just closed on a new house. How many people can say that they were
opening for Jorma Kaukonen
Saturday night, and then picking up a truck rental Sunday morning to
spend the entire day moving?
Shain opened the set with a version of his updated take on Sonny Terry
and Brownie McGee's The Letter. While his performance on acoustic guitar
was a little shaky behind the initial vocal portion, the first section
of lead guitar was so impressive it elicited applause from the crowd.
The next six songs were from Shain's 1999 solo release "Brand New
Lifetime". His finger picking on Loan Me A Year was a bit more subdued
than usual, perhaps in deference to Mr. Kaukonen. He chose spice up this
version with a lead guitar not usually heard on Loan Me A Year, and an
enlivened lead vocal. Jon was in strong vocal form the entire set. This
paid off particularly well as he offered note-perfect versions of three
of his stronger recent originals, which also were well received by his
hometown crowd. Child Of Tomorrow's Summers featured the presumably
unintentional nod to Corgan's worries at Cat's Cradle, with the lyric
"frightening nightmare's in the cradle." This was a particularly
impassioned rendition, as Shain engaged himself in the lyrics of the
song, especially as he sang, "at harvest time we'll have to scour the
field, for the seeds we've never sown." He also played a note-perfect,
in this number.
One of Shain's favorite one-two punches lately has been the old-timey
Porcupine Rag, and the Stephen Stills-flavored muscular acoustics of
Armchair Warrior. These two shined particularly bright tonight, and
grunts of appreciation for Shain's luscious guitar picking emitted from
finger watchers sitting up near the stage.
Shain then pointed out that another one of his heroes was in The Arts
Center that night, the esteemed North Carolina bluesman Lightnin' Wells.
Shain then performed One Way Gal, which he introduced as written by a
blues musician from the twenties, William Moore; although Shain stole it
off of one of Wells' albums. Shain also chose this moment to acknowledge
the many guitar students of his that were in attendance, to which the
shouted out their approval. There were many of Shain's most fervent fans
in the house also, and he treated them to a rare solo reading of a
former Flyin' Mice showstopper, the poorly titled instrumental epic,
Acoustic Solo. (I always thought the title didn't do the adventurous
justice) Later, one taper who follows Shain's career closely suggested
that it may have been the first live version since Flyin' Mice
Perambulatory Blues, a long time
staple of many Shain projects, found him offering a fiery lead at
breakneck pace, definitely his strongest guitar work of the set. Jon
then engaged the crowd in a call and response on the
set-closing Step It Up And Go. As he departed the stage, most of the
audience exalted him with a standing ovation.
I was taken by the respect Jon showed Jorma by shaping his set to
complement Jorma's performance rather than compete with it. The
Americana feel of some of his songs, the guttural singing synchronized
with an entire
lead he took on Armchair Warrior, and of course the call and response
with the crowd on Step It Up And Go, all served to appropriately whet
the audience's musical palette for the Jorma set that followed. Shain
displayed an awareness of the fact that there is no need to finger pick
too many tunes when one of the greatest of all time is on deck.
Jorma Kaukonen's set:
Harvey Colman's Clapton Story Intro
Trouble In Mind
How Long Blues
Death Don't Have No Mercy
Do Not Go Gentle
I See The Light>
Sunny Day Strut
Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
Living In The Moment
I Am The Light Of This World
Follow The Drinking Gourd
Uncle Sam Blues
Happy Turtle Song
San Francisco Bay Blues
Police Dog Blues
Keep On Truckin'
One thing that highlights how Jorma has improved, as a performer in the
years that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy him is his vocal
delivery. As far back as I can remember, Jorma's guitar prowess has
evident. However, when I first started seeing Jorma in the eighties, his
vocal approach, while always resonant with soul, was sometimes was
lacking in comprehensibility. While he was still a delight to see back
then, one really had to come to the show armed with prior knowledge of
the lyrics of his repertoire to garner a full appreciation. While he
still has his own distinctive warm growl delivered with robust soul, he
now also sings with consistent clarity. And his guitar work?well?.
ridiculous?..off the hook?.at times inconceivable?.Jorma is one of those
artists that render
words worthless and weak, but that's all we got so here we go.
Jorma's tour manager and close friend, the enigmatic Harvey Colman,
regaled the crowd with a story while introducing the man some call, "The
Captain." "Eric Clapton was doing an interview one time and somebody
him, 'How does it feel to be the greatest guitarist in the world?' And
Eric said, "I don't know, ask Jorma Kaukonen!" After showing Harvey some
appreciation for going the extra mile with the introduction, Jorma slid
into a tune believed by many to be written by B lind Connie Williams,
Trouble In Mind. Jorma eased into the set with pretty straight readings
of this and Hesitation Blues. That is
to say, straight by lofty Kaukonen standards. He did lend some extra
muscle to one portion of Hesitation. Robert Johnson's Walkin' Blues
seemed to energize Jorma, as one slightly botched section gave way to
muscular low note improvisations immediately. Jorma threw down some
stunning instrumental work, holding notes and series' of notes to build
tension, and slamming out of them only to return to more liberal
improvisation and eventually launch into other note holding sessions.
Some of the riffs that he tossed out during Walkin' were nothing short
of jaw dropping, and the show was in gear.
Responding to a request for In The Kingdom, Jorma shared a prayer that
he had heard on NPR recently, "I pray for the day I can be the man my
dog thinks I am." He then laid a spectacular version of How Long Blues
on us, which featured some stunning sinewy guitar lines. His vocal was
outstanding as well, especially his delivery of, "I thought I
heard a whistle, mama I think I see a train. Deep in my heart there is a
I thought Death Don't Have No Mercy was going to be the rarely performed
Another Man Done Gone at first, until he injected an acrobatic low note
guitar roll into the introduction signaling that it was indeed Death.
Again, he exhibited many stunning low note guitar flurries. One of the
many head-scratching things about Jorma is the amount
of notes he can get out with very little plucking from his right hand.
That left hand of his is often solely responsible for many, many strong
notes, while his right hand patiently waits above the strings. His
guitar playing in the verse section of Death seemed to be entirely
even the fastest riffs didn't throw off his timing one bit. Jorma's
instrumental passages were pure ear candy, with high notes here, some
lusciously repeated chordal work there; it was truly an amazing reading.
I enjoy Do Not Go Gentle, because it is a song that particularly allows
Jorma to take it wherever he pleases. Tonight, it wandered into some
sweetly ethereal spaces. The opening chords of True Religion, sparked
some hoots out of the attentive audience. The reading was slightly
slower than I am used to, which seemed to put more emphasis on the
prescient lyric of this Tuna classic. Just the way he inserts a gentle
smidge of his growl into the verse ending "Hal-ay-lu's" (phonetic) was
Nobody Knows You lends itself to Jorma's style of vocal and phrasing
beautifully. An example of one of my favorite things about Jorma was
when he crooned the "Nobody Knows You When" and then with "Your" he
trailed to a
growl and let his guitar play the "Down and Out," part which flowed
seamlessly into an instrumental section. As Harvey would ask, "does it
get any better than this?.really?.does it?"
Living In The Moment, is a new song that will soon have words, "if I'm
lucky," Jorma says. It is a contemplative piece, which tonight I believe
had a new portion that wasn't included in the version I had seen in
Atlanta just two days back. It's always nice to hear Jorma working on
material. This is especially true with a piece like this one, where
there is ample space for improvisation. I'm sure Jorma will take
advantage of this as he becomes more familiar it. One fan yelled out,
"don't need no words Jorma!" To which the eternally quick-witted
"That's not what my wife says!" Jorma dipped back to his psychedelic
days with a heart-felt rendering of Good Shepherd, which was first made
popular by the Jefferson Airplane. His vocals were spiced with quiet
embellishments. He effortlessly alternated delicate guitar parts with
resonant chords where his left hand grabbed the guitar with such might I
though he was gonna throw the thing. Jorma also displayed some energetic
rhythm guitar before and during the familiar descending patterns that
return the song to its final lyric.
99 Year Blues has become something of a "hit" for Kaukonen
lately, as the crowd responded to the opening notes, and the end of the
first verse for that matter, with fervent applause (as they did in
Atlanta). Jorma appeared more than happy to play 99 Year Blues as he
fired off some dizzying guitar lines, and was jubilantly toying with the
phrasing. Rev. Gary Davis' I Am The Light Of This World, provided
further evidence of Jorma's ability to easily work his left hand across
the fret board like a contortionist. The crowd seemed hypnotized by a
spectacular reading of his own spooky composition, Ice Age. Jorma took
full advantage of this piece on the final instrumental portion, which
found him to twisting the song into new directions before he
power-strummed it to its conclusion.
A woman squealed with delight when Jorma announced that he was going to
perform Genesis. Jorma thanked the exuberant fan by saying, "bless you."
Widespread Panic covers this song occasionally, and in case some of
their younger fans don't know, it i a Kaukonen-penned Hot Tuna song. His
heart-wrenching lead vocal was mesmerizing as Jorma delivered a
memorable version of this wonderful song. After its completion, Jorma
got ta' talkin' about surreal moments, and among the ones he shared was
a recent day that he had heard his instrumental Water Song in an Ohio
airport. After a couple more stories, he offered an extended version of
his instrumental, Follow The Drinking Gourd in lieu of a requested White
While all of Jorma's material takes on a different feel in a solo
setting, this version of Uncle Sam Blues departed radically from any
I've ever heard. His choices of where to accent, lyrically and
instrumentally, were strikingly adventurous. This made for an
interesting listen, as did the Jorma chestnut that followed. A friend of
Jorma's had asked him to perform Happy Turtle Song, and Jorma obliged,
introducing it as "A little thing in C." It was a quick lil' nug, but
I'll take it. Hot on its heels was a version of Mann's Fate that was
nothing short of stunning. There was one point where he was repeating
two separate guitar lines in unison; Jorma at his stunt acoustic guitar
I've always preferred Jorma's approach to Jesse Fuller's San Francisco
Bay Blues to anyone else's, and tonight's version did not disappoint. He
twisted the song beautifully, stretching out some words, and galloping
through others. His fingers skipped across the guitar as he offered an
unthinkable array of rhythms, repeated notes, and sick licks. The room
seemed in collective awe as it was beyond silent until a rousing ovation
greeted its conclusion.
Jorma's tantalizing reading of Water Song ended the set. The crowd
exploded with a loud standing ovation that did not let up until he
returned to tune up for a solid version of "Police Dog Blues." After he
attempted to leave again, the crowd continued to roar their approval.
The venue turned on the house music, but that only caused the crowd to
increase its cheering. As the thunderous applause drowned out the house
music, Jorma re-emerged to leave us with a animated version of Keep On
http://www.hottuna.com/tour.htm for Kaukonen and other Hot Tuna
related tour dates.
Official Web Site: http://www.jormakaukonen.com