Jorma Kaukonen, legendary guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and his own band, Hot Tuna, spends at least half the year on the road. In December, for example, he had spent more than a week in Maui, Hawaii — where he goes every now and then to play and to teach guitar — and then flew to his home base in rural southeastern Ohio.
What a difference a few hours makes. When Kaukonen landed, the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio were under a couple feet of snow. But Kaukonen said he loves the snow, and winter in general. “I had put it off a little bit on my Russian-Finnish background, but I enjoy winter,” says Kaukonen in a phone interview. “You get bundled up, get your wood stove going. I’ve got a tractor and a plow so I don’t have to shovel by hand. I think winter is serene and beautiful. I love it. Up to a point. Then I’m ready for spring.”
Kaukonen performs with Hot Tuna and special guests Charlie Musselwhite, with six Grammy nominations as the world’s greatest living blues harmonica player, and bluegrass master guitarist/songwriter Jim Lauderdale, a two-time Grammy winner, on Monday, February 7, at McCarter Theater.
His given name is pronounced Yorma and sounds more like an NHL goalie or professional strongman than an iconic American rock star with a huge legacy and a technique steeped in the blues and folk music. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jorma Kaukonen Jr. was born 70 years ago in Washington, DC. His father, Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen, was born in Finland, moved to the U.S. as a young man, and spent most of his life traveling around the world as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. His mother, Beatrice Levine, was a New Yorker of Russian-Jewish background, a schoolteacher who taught elementary school while raising Kaukonen and his younger brother.
“My parents met in 1936 at a party of some sort, in the Washington, DC, area. In those days, my father was a fingerprint clerk for the FBI.” The elder Kaukonen had an affinity for languages and was able to learn Japanese. He served in World War II as a Naval Intelligence officer and went to Japan after the war’s end to serve as an interpreter and translator. He also spent two years in Korea and then joined the Foreign Service.
As a result of his father’s peripatetic nature, Kaukonen spent most of his young life in Asia. He attended prep school at the Ateneo, a Jesuit-run institution in the Philippines. “Due to the magic of the Internet, I have been able to keep in contact with many of the people I went to school with,” he says. “There is a certain bond that service brats have, whether it’s diplomatic service or the military. Traveling all the time is just part of your life. I missed out on having grown up with the same group of kids, going to the same schools together. I guess that’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a lot of great friends I met in different parts of the world while growing up. I loved it.”
Growing up all over the world also gave Kaukonen another advantage. “I was not always into music when I was young, the way I am now, but I loved music. I think I absorbed sounds and textures from every place we lived, and I think all the stuff I heard when I was a kid popped up later on.”
In the early 1960s Kaukonen entered the liberal, almost countercultural Antioch College in Ohio — “it was known as that pinko free-love school in the Midwest,” says Kaukonen — where he got turned on to the Reverend Gary Davis, a finger-picking guitar master who to this day has greatly influenced Kaukonen’s playing. “In many respects he was a powerful muse for me, and he continues to be so,” says Kaukonen.
He later transferred to Santa Clara University in Northern California — chiefly to avoid the draft — and graduated in 1965 with a degree in sociology. He also met singer-guitarist Paul Kantner and bassist Jack Casady, with whom he would found Jefferson Airplane.
“Airplane was a huge learning process and a gateway for me into music. I had never played with a band before. We had all kinds of great writers — Paul, Grace (Slick), and Marty (Balin) — but it was so different from anything that had come from my background, so it was a real challenge to learn to play the guitar the way that I did,” Kaukonen says. “In some respects it sounded really different from some of the rock and roll of the time.”
Hot Tuna is more folk, more acoustic, more jazz, more jam band than rock. Kaukonen and Casady formed the group in 1969 during a break from Jefferson Airplane. Hot Tuna now consists of Kaukonen, Casady, mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff and drummer Skoota Warner, with guest player G.E. Smith, formerly of the Saturday Night Live band.
“Jack and I have played together since 1958, and we can bring some of the oddities we got from Airplane to Hot Tuna. But I’ve done a lot of other stuff too. My path has been allowing me to grow constantly. I can bring influences from many other ways of playing to this band.”
Kaukonen’s Ohio property is a sprawling two-parcel ranch he bought more than 20 years ago. He lives on one farm and has created a home for his musical endeavors on the other. “A friend of mine owned a piece of some land in the area, and it was 119 acres. He offered it to sell it to me, and I went down and looked at it. Despite the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere, I liked it. Land was extremely cheap back then. So I bought a farm close by, which is where we live, as well as the Fur Peace Ranch. I’m sort of a minor land baron around here,” says Kaukonen. “But we’ve been here 20 years and have laid down roots. I know my neighbors, I like my neighbors, we’re near Athens, which is where Ohio University is, that’s a good school. I’m even a member of the Chamber of Commerce here. It’s just a great place to come home to.”
On the Fur Peace Ranch, there is a music school, a recording studio, and 200-seat theater. For nine months of the year, Kaukonen presides over the educational process. “Our teaching weekends are from Friday morning to Monday morning. We usually have three to four instructors, and the classes run from six to 10 people. It’s just a great musical weekend.”
Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, are now raising their young daughter, Israel Love, in Ohio and wherever else they work and teach. Kaukonen also has a son from a previous relationship, and he and his wife decided to adopt a girl from China. “People say to me, ‘She’s a lucky little girl.’ Sure, she might be, but we’re the luckiest parents to have such a great kid. She’s healthy, she’s smart, and we’re just very blessed.”
Kaukonen says he and Vanessa were lucky on another level: the Chinese government has become reluctant to allow adoption to older parents. “Vanessa is still young (48), but by today’s standards I would not have been allowed to adopt. We adopted her in the last year that they let people in their 60s have children. I am so lucky. I just want to live long enough for her to become a teenager, and I’m planning on that.”
Hot Tuna Blues, Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Monday, February 7, 8 p.m. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Hot Tuna with blues icon Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, and Grammy winner Jim Lauderdale with an evening of acoustic and blues. $42 and up. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.