As a teenager in the late ’70s, I was too young to experience firsthand the earth-shattering events of the 1960s. Still, my friends and I clung to the remnants of that tumultuous, transformative, romantic and inspiring decade.
We were especially captivated by its music, artists and bands such as the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and two of my biggest favorites, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. So I was thrilled when I recently got the opportunity to interview Jorma Kaukonen, a founding member of “The Airplane” and co-founder of the still-touring Hot Tuna. (I was even more thrilled to find out what a nice guy he is.)
Kaukonen’s latest CD, “Ain’t In No Hurry,” was released by Red House Records earlier this year, and his memoir, “Been So Long: My Life and Music,” was published in August. (In 2015, Kaukonen was ranked 54th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.)
The offspring of a Finnish father and a Jewish mother, Kaukonen, 78, and his lifelong friend and musical collaborator Jack Casady perform at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, at 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave. in Owings Mills, on Nov. 29.
Jmore: I see you’re calling from a 202 phone exchange? What’s the D.C. connection?
Kaukonen: I actually have this phone number because my son [Zachary, 21] and his mother live in the D.C. area and with this mobile number he didn’t have to make long distance calls.. That said, I do consider D.C. my hometown. I was born there and went to elementary and junior high school there. But my father was in the military, so we moved to Pakistan for my freshman year in high school, back to D.C. for my sophomore year and moved to the Philippines for my junior year.
How did you start playing music?
I was kind of set up to do it. My parents loved music. My dad played violin and piano, and my mom played some piano. I took piano lessons like a lot of kids, but I didn’t love it. I became passionate about music when I discovered guitar.
In my second year of college at Antioch, this guy, Ian Buchanan, turned me on to the finger-picking style guitar of [blues and gospel singer] Rev. Gary Davis.
How did Jefferson Airplane happen?
It was a stroke of fate. I had moved to San Jose, Calif., was going to college there and teaching guitar, and I met Paul Kantner. He was living in San Francisco and was starting a band. He invited me to join and I asked Jack [Casady] to come out to San Francisco and join. When the band started, it was kind of folky so it wasn’t such a big leap for me. But when we made [the landmark album] “Surrealistic Pillow” that was a big leap. I was a folky and wasn’t used to standing up making guitar faces.
What were those days like?
What happened to me and my pals in the ’60s doesn’t happen. We had a record deal almost immediately, and we became internationally popular. When you’re young and in the flow of success, you almost take it for granted.
We moved to San Francisco because it was affordable. That’s laughable today. In ’65, the arts community in San Francisco was competitive but it was loving, too. Everyone supported each other. When that community started, everyone knew each other’s name. That was the magic. San Francisco was really inviting artists of all sorts.
So that whole thing sort of led up to the “Summer of Love.” It was nationally publicized, and then everyone started to come.
We played the holy trinity of festivals — Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont. Monterey was a jazz festival. No one had ever played rock and pop there before. It almost dignified our music. And Woodstock … none of us had any idea what would happen. Everyone was at Woodstock. When I saw Santana play there, he blew me away. It was like ‘”Whoa! What’s up with this?”
Altamont? A lot of people ask, “Was that the end of the Summer of Love?” Probably not, but it was a very unpleasant experience.”
What was it like to play with Janis Joplin?
Janis was really interesting. She was so very, very good. I met her in 1962. The first time I ever heard her was at an open mic in San Jose. I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Every time she came down, we would play.
I never saw her as tragic. Janis wasn’t tragic in the years we played together.
Others musicians you especially admire?
Mike Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Eric Clapton … when I heard him on that wah-wah pedal, I had to get one. Jimi [Hendrix] was great, Buddy Guy … I don’t play like these guys, but I learned so much about music from them.
How’d Hot Tuna come about?
Well, Jack is my oldest buddy and we’ve always played together. When we were touring with Jefferson Airplane, I always carried my acoustic guitar. We’d share hotel rooms, and though it’s hard to believe, there weren’t always TVs. So he’d have his bass, I’d have my guitar in the room, and we’d start playing.
By 1969 or ’70, we found ourselves with all this material that became the first Hot Tuna album [recorded live at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, Calif.]. I’ll never go into a project so prepared again.
You’ve been playing together for more than 50 years. How do you keep it interesting?
We’ve always respected each other as people and artists, and we love the music. So far, we still love it.
Do you keep in touch with Grace Slick?
I’ve talked to Grace Slick more in the last year than in the past 20 years. We actually had dinner a while back. I said to her, “I never told you what an honor it was to make music with someone of your caliber.” I think she was touched. She’s kind of a crusty old girl, so that was a big deal, when you can touch her.
And you recently lost your fellow Jewish bandmate in The Airplane, Marty Balin.
I knew he was having some health issues, and even though you know everyone dies, you just think people are going to live forever. Marty’s widow called us when we were just about to do a sound check. It was a real shock. I don’t know if there’s a better place but if there is, he’s there.
How does Judaism fit into your life?
I was born Jewish and spent a lot of time with my [Jewish] maternal grandparents for most of my early years. The cultural milieu was Jewish, but I didn’t realize it. No one was more Jewish than my grandmother, but she didn’t like organized religion. If it hadn’t been for that, I might have been Orthodox.
Have you seen [the Barry Levinson film] “Avalon”? It was like that. My wife converted to Judaism a decade ago and I went with her to the lessons. I like to go to High Holiday services. I feel culturally Jewish.
You live in Ohio. What kind of camp do you and your wife run there?
In 1989 or ’90, I got a call from a guy I knew years ago who asked me if I’d be interested in buying a 126-acre piece of property in southeast Ohio. I do have a family history in Ohio. In fact, I got my first earache in the JCC pool in Cincinnati!
That’s not why I bought it, though. I just had a good feeling about it. My wife Vanessa thought I had lost my mind! We’ve been there 30 years now. It’s a great place to live and raise kids [The Kaukonens have a 12-year-old daughter named Israel.]
In 1998, my wife and I started Fur Peace Ranch Music Camp. My thing was to provide a safe space where likeminded musicians can play. When I wanted to play the music of Rev. Gary Davis, the attitude with white guys [playing the blues] was, “You’ll never get this.” Anyone can get it. As a teacher, my job is to open the door. I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t get it.
Your thoughts on today’s music scene?
There’s so much going on. … I’m still into the music I’ve always loved. The good news is young people playing music are so much better than we were. And Americana is alive and well and growing at a terrific rate.
For tickets to see Hot Tuna on Nov. 29, visit jcc.org