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 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. Skeptical of his son’s dedication to the instrument, Jorma Kaukonen, Sr., 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.
Jorma 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. Jorma was hooked. 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 band’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 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 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 years.
After 50 years of friendship, Jorma and Jack continue to tour as Hot Tuna, with mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff and, more recently, drummer Erik Diaz. In addition to his work with Hot Tuna, Jorma has recorded more than a dozen solo albums on major labels and on his own, beginning with 1974’s Quah and continuing with his recent acoustic releases on Red House Records—2007’s Stars in My Crown and his new CD River of Time, produced by Larry Campbell and featuring Levon Helm.
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, bringing such artists as David Bromberg, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Chris Hillman. 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. He has worked with Jack Casady and other musicians on the instructional website, www.BreakDownWay.com, where they provide online learning and support to students all over the world.
Amidst the teaching, touring and recording, Jorma finds time to spend time with his family and young daughter Izze. An enthusiastic motorcyclist and avid outdoorsman, he also tries to spend as much time outside as possible.