As lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen played a major role in developing its sound, pushing the original "electric folk" direction toward free-form blues rock. But even in the band's early days, Jorma (pronounced YOR ma) began to branch out independently -- one of the most memorable tracks on the million-selling Surrealistic Pillow (1967) is his signature instrumental, Embryonic Journey. Eventually, Jorma branched out further by forming, with bassist Jack Casady, the off-shoot band Hot Tuna.
Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen (pronounced COW kuh nen) was born December 23, 1940, in Washington, D.C., of Finnish/Russian ancestry. His father, Jorma Ludwig, worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, and his mother was Beatrice Levine Kaukonen. Jorma has a younger brother by nearly five years, Peter. Growing up across the Potomac River from Virginia, Jorma developed an early love for country music and the blues. At 12, he followed his father to Pakistan; when Jorma returned to the U.S. in 1956, rock 'n' roll was happening. Jorma learned to play guitar and developed an interest in the blues. Around this time, he became friends with Chick Casady, but it was Chick's younger brother, Jack, with whom Jorma would form a lasting bond. Despite an age difference of more than three years, Jack and Jorma shared similar musical tastes and ambitions. They soon formed an rock 'n' roll band called the Triumphs and recorded a 78-rpm record, Magic Key.
Around 1959, Jorma moved to Ohio to attend Antioch College. Before dropping out, he met guitarist Ian Buchanan -- an encounter that would change Jorma's life. Buchanan introduced Jorma to the music of legendary gospel and blues guitarist the Reverend Gary Davis. Before long, Jorma was hanging out at the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York and taking lessons from Davis himself.
After briefly moving to the Philippines, where his father was now stationed, and attending a Catholic university there, Jorma returned to the U.S. in 1961 to attend the University of Santa Clara in California. This second college stint was motivated primarily by Jorma's desire to avoid the draft (he wound up at Santa Clara because only another Catholic institution would accept the credits he had earned in the Philippines), but the move would prove significant in shaping Jorma's future. Before long, he was playing in a short-lived combo with Steve Talbot, Billy Roberts (writer of Hey Joe), and an unknown female singer from Texas, Janis Joplin. During this time, Jorma went by the name Jerry Kaukonen.
It was also at Santa Clara, in 1962, that Jorma became acquainted with a folk musician from San Francisco named Paul Kantner. Despite Paul's obvious admiration for Jorma's abilities, the two never played together at the time -- Paul would later admit that his interest in folk had little in common with Jorma's blues.
In 1964, Jorma graduated from Santa Clara with a bachelor's degree in sociology. He then traveled with his grandparents to Europe, where, on a boat, he met a statuesque Swede named Margaretta. Within a couple of months, they were living together and soon married.
In the spring of 1965, Jorma was giving guitar lessons in San Jose when he was contacted by his former acquaintance, Paul Kantner. Paul had returned to San Francisco, where he was forming a new band and wanted Jorma to be part of it. Jorma was reticent -- he was planning on moving to Denmark to play with blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree -- but finally agreed to join temporarily when the band enticed him with an electronic echo device and a paycheck (something none of the other band members were initially getting).
While Jorma and Margaretta were commuting to San Francisco, Margaretta was arrested by a cop who thought she was prostitute. The matter was eventually dropped (thanks, in part, to Jorma's father calling in favors), but dragged on long enough for Jorma to forget about Denmark. Instead, he and Margaretta moved to San Francisco in June 1965. Later that month, the band met at his place to discuss finding a name. Recalling that he and his college friend, Steve Talbot, used to sit around inventing names for imaginary blues musicians, Jorma offered up one of Talbot's creations -- Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane. Before long, the name -- or at least half of it -- stuck.
Jorma now allows that, during the band's early days, he acted aggressive to compensate for the outsider feelings of being a small-town kid in the big city. There was no question, however, of his talent, and the Airplane bent over backwards to keep him. When Jorma decided that neither drummer Jerry Peloquin nor bassist Bob Harvey would do, they were replaced. Jorma set about recruiting the new bassist himself -- his childhood friend, Jack Casady.
It was Jack with whom Jorma found a willing ally and accomplice. Their friendship soon cemented into a powerful musical partnership. They immersed themselves in a variety of musical styles -- blues, folk, country, and jazz -- and brought this unique mix to Jefferson Airplane.
After the Airplane broke big in 1967, Jorma and Jack became discontented with Marty Balin's original folk rock vision for the group. Jorma criticized Marty's ballads as "trite" and began pushing the others to follow the lead of the British band Cream in playing heavier, bluesier music. Jorma and Jack began to play long, improvised jams in concert; one of their jams found its way onto the Airplane's third album, After Bathing as Baxter's, as Spare Chaynge, clocking in at over nine minutes.
Jorma also developed his own style as a singer and songwriter, contributing Ice Cream Phoenix and Star Track to Crown of Creation (1968), and a new arrangement of the traditional hymn Good Shepherd on Volunteers (1969). In a band already overflowing with singers, it may have seemed odd for Jorma to sing his own songs, but no one seemed to mind. Jorma's voice, while not on par with the others, contributes a nasal, down-to-earth quality that complements his own songs but never quite blends with the Airplane style. Rather, it presaged the band's split into various directions.
While on tour, Jorma and Jack would occupy their time by playing music in their hotel room. Out of this they began, in 1968, to record demos with drummer Joey Covington. Then in 1969, Jorma and Jack began playing clubs as an acoustic duo called Hot Tuna. In April of that year, RCA signed them up to a separate contract, although they remained with the Airplane.
Hot Tuna's eponymous debut album appeared in June 1970, featuring a live acoustic set recorded the previous September by Jorma, Jack, and harmonica player Will Scarlett. By the time of the album's release, however, the band had become loud and electric, and included Covington, a secession of second guitarists, and, briefly, Marty Balin. Hot Tuna never did become America's answer to the Rolling Stones, as RCA intended for them to be, but they did enjoy a large and devoted following. At first, Hot Tuna was seen as an extension of the Airplane; they would play a set either in the middle of the parent band's show or at the beginning, serving in effect as opening act. But, as time went on, Jorma and Jack began to carve out a distinct musical identity for themselves. When the Airplane wasn't gigging, you could be sure that Hot Tuna was.
During the early '70s, as relations among Airplane members deteriorated, Jorma and Jack devoted more and more of their time to Hot Tuna. In 1971, the Airplane launched its own label, Grunt Records, as a vehicle for both bands as well as solo projects. The incessant recording resulted in interchangeable tracks. For example, Jorma's Trial by Fire, on the Airplane's Long John Silver (1972), was originally a Hot Tuna track, and even featured Tuna's drummer, Sammy Piazza. For Jorma, who was admittedly not a prolific songwriter, this patchwork style of recording proved enormously frustrating.
In Third Week in the Chelsea (Bark, 1971), Jorma eloquently expresses his thoughts on the disintegration of the Airplane and the public image they had to uphold: "So we go on moving trying to make this image real/ straining every nerve not knowing what we really feel." A year later, Jorma and Jack left the band to concentrate on Hot Tuna. Jorma told VH-1 in 1998 that the Airplane was draining him physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Hot Tuna continued to record and perform until 1978. Jorma then went solo, but with little commercial success. (At one point, the many tattooed guitarist dyed his hair blonde to fit into the punk rock scene.) Then in 1983, he and Jack reformed Hot Tuna on a part-time basis, a relationship that continues to the present. Jorma has also performed in various other combinations, such as with Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano as Kaukarano.
In 1989, Jorma and Jack were "talked into" a Jefferson Airplane reunion. Jorma later said that he found very little creativity in the project -- the only songs recorded "live" in the studio were his three contributions, featuring himself, Jack, and drummer Kenny Aronoff. Jorma was also dissatisfied with the tour that followed: he later admitted that he would fake playing Miracles and other songs he didn't care for or allow his brother, Peter Kaukonen, to play them. The tour also proved to be a financial loss, which Jorma blames on Grace Slick's insistence on using a large backing band and new management.
Jorma's marriage to Margaretta ended in 1987. She died of liver disease about ten years later. In 1992, Jorma married Vanessa Lillian. Three years earlier, they had moved to Meigs, OH, and founded the Fur Peace Guitar Ranch, where Jorma continues to teach traditional American music to young musicians.