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Jorma Kaukonen Biography

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Jorma Kaukonen (born Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen Jr. on December 23, 1940 in Washington, D.C.) is an American blues, folk and rock guitarist.

Born to a Finnish American father, employed by the U.S foreign service, and a Jewish American mother, Kaukonen was a founding member of the popular psychedelic San Francisco-based band Jefferson Airplane, which scored two Top 10 radio hits in 1967 with "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."

Kaukonen learned to play guitar as a teenager in Washington, D.C. There he and future Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady formed a band named The Triumphs. He departed Washington for studies at Antioch College where friend Ian Buchanan taught him fingerstyle guitar playing. Buchanan also introduced Kaukonen to the music of Reverend Gary Davis, whose songs have remained important parts of Kaukonen's repertoire up to the present.

In 1962 Kaukonen moved to the San Francisco bay area and enrolled in Santa Clara University. As a self-described blues purist, Kaukonen never had any ambition to play in a rock band. He played as a solo act in coffee houses and can be heard accompanying a young Janis Joplin on acoustic guitar on an historic 1964 recording (known as "The Typewriter Tapes" because of the obtrusive sound of Kaukonen's first wife Margareta typing in the background). Invited to attend a Jefferson Airplane rehearsal by founding member Paul Kantner, Kaukonen found his imagination excited by the arsenal of effects available to electric guitar and later said, "I was sucked in by technology."

Kaukonen's electric guitar work was distinctive and widely emulated by other Bay Area guitarists, including Barry Melton (who is said to have recorded Jefferson Airplane performances on cassette to study Kaukonen's lead playing) and John Cipollina. His best work with Jefferson Airplane includes "Greasy Heart", "If You Feel" (with its staccato cry-baby), "Hey Frederick" (which culminates in a staggering, extended lead guitar duet with himself), "Wooden Ships" and his original composition, "Feel so Good". Rolling Stone named Kaukonen the 54th greatest rock guitarist of all time and 15th greatest acoustic guitarist. [1]

Though never a prolific singer and songwriter during his Airplane tenure, Kaukonen contributed some of the band's most innovative material. "Embryonic Journey" showcased his fingerstyle acoustic guitar virtuosity. On the next Jefferson Airplane album, After Bathing at Baxters, his playing developed a harder-edged sound inspired by Mike Bloomfield with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Cream and other groups that visited San Francisco. These stylistic changes are prominent in the acid rocker "The Last Wall of the Castle", as well as the instrumental "Spare Chaynge", co-written with bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden. Clocking in at 9:12 minutes, this improvisational style was further explored on the free-form extended jams "Thing" and "Bear Melt", both live instrumentals recorded in 1968. Kaukonen insists, however, on the liner notes of the Live at the Fillmore East album that these jams were not chaotic "free for alls" but in fact "complex rehearsed arrarngements." Two notable songs that were later to become Hot Tuna signature tunes were also recorded during the 1968-1969 period. These were the traditionals "Rock Me Baby " and the gospel ballad "Good Shepherd." Other original compositions with the Airplane appeared on the 1971 album "Bark", the instrumental "Wild Turkey" and "Feel So good", with their imaginative and quirky arrangements characterized by razor-sharp lead guitar, and the acoustic autobiographical "Third Week in the Chelsea" detailing his feelings about the disintegration of the band.

In 1969-70, Kaukonen and Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna, a spin-off group that allowed them to play as long as they liked, while fellow band members Grace Slick and Paul Kantner took a year off in preparation for the birth of their daughter, China. In its earliest incarnation, Hot Tuna was fronted by Airplane vocalist Marty Balin and featured Joey Covington on drums and vocals, but this version came to an end after an unsuccessful recording jaunt to Jamaica, the sessions of which have never been released. Pared down to Kaukonen and Casady, Hot Tuna lived on as a vehicle for Kaukonen to show off his Piedmont style acoustic blues fingerpicking skills. The self-titled first album was all acoustic and recorded live. With the dissolution of Jefferson Airplane in 1972, Hot Tuna went electric, with Airplane fiddler Papa John Creach joining for the next two albums. Hot Tuna scored an FM hit with "Keep On Truckin'" from their third (and first studio) album, Burgers, which remains the band's definitive statement. Indeed it was at this time that Kaukonen's songwriting matured significently and this album and the next," Phosphorescent Rat"(1973), contain his most delicate and poetic works. Beginning with their fourth album, America's Choice (1974), the addition of powerhouse drummer Bob Steeler encouraged a rise in volume and a change of band personality -- a rampaging, Cream-like rock with often quasi-mystical lyrics courtesy of Kaukonen. During this period, the power trio was known for its very long live sets and instrumental jamming.

In 1974, Kaukonen recorded the first and most successful of several solo albums, Quah, together with Tom Hobson. The curious picture that appears on Quah's cover is today on display at Donkey's, a coffee shop in Athens, Ohio. With Hot Tuna, Kaukonen toured vigorously throughout the 1970's , but with Hot Tuna's break up in 1978, the first phase of the band's career ended. Casady left to form the new wave band "SVT", while Kaukonen played with the shortlived "Vital Parts", recording the "Barbeque King "LP (and dying his hair bright orange). Later, Kaukonen played solo at such venues as The Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia, The Capitol Theater in Passaic , New Jersey and in Port Chester New York. As in his Hot Tuna days, he played very long solo sets, usually beginning with an hour-long acoustic set followed by a long intermission and then a two hour electric set. Hot Tuna themselves reformed in the late 1980's. At a 1987 Hot Tuna performance, Kaukonen surprised fellow Airplane alumnus Paul Kantner, who was sitting in, with a surprise appearance by his estranged lover Grace Slick; the success of this performance helped to pave the way for a Jefferson Airplane reunion tour and record in 1989.

Two notable outside projects Kaukonen played on were the David Crosby album "If I Could Only Remember My Name" (1971) and Warren Zevon's "Transverse City" (1989). In 1999 he played several gigs with Phil Lesh and Friends.

With his wife Vanessa, Kaukonen currently owns and operates the Fur Peace Ranch, a 119 acre music and guitar camp in the hills of southeast Ohio, complete with a 32 track studio. He is currently under contract as a solo artist to Columbia Records and still records and tours with Jack Casady and other friends such as Barry Mitterhof as Hot Tuna. Their Thanksgiving Eve show at Keswick Theater in Glenside, Pennsylvania has become a tradition.
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