Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen celebrates his 81st birthday today. Kaukonen’s charismatic, blues-based electric guitar style was a key component of the mid-1960s Bay Area psychedelic rock movement.
As part of that counterculture community centered in San Francisco, Kaukonen – who formed Hot Tuna with Airplane bassist Jack Casady in 1969 – frequently collaborated with local musicians like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Crosby, Stills & Nash and others. As evidenced by his output with Hot Tuna and elsewhere, Kaukonen’s affection for the blues is well established. He was influenced by the likes of the Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley and Robert Johnson.
Kaukonen’s affinity for the blues and collaborating with Bay Area musicians can be heard on a recording believed to be from October 28, 1969, of a jam session that took place at the Jefferson Airplane house at 2400 Fulton Street in San Francisco. The informal jam, possibly captured by Grateful Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson, featured Kaukonen on guitar and Casady on bass along with guitarist Jerry Garcia and either his Grateful Dead bandmate Mickey Hart on drums or the Airplane’s Joey Covington or Spencer Dryden.
The set kicks off with Garcia leading a rendition of the traditional “I’ve Been All Around This World.” Prior to its start, Jerry mentions that early Hot Tuna harmonica player Will Scarlett did a version of the song, as did the old-timey banjo player “Grandpa” Jones. Some noodling then leads to “Big Boss Man.” After its completion, responding to a questioner (perhaps Jorma), Garcia explains the song was written by Jimmy Reed, and someone else is heard saying they like Reed’s song “Little Rain.” Garcia responds saying he too loved – and might know how to play – the song, soon starting to pick something similar to the tune’s melody.
The ensuing ~45 minutes resulted in the musicians jamming on various blues-centric motifs, broken into four sections. Jorma and Jerry passionately trade one hot lick after another (Garcia in the right channel, Kaukonen in the left), while Jack dazzles behind them and the drummer keeps pace. Before the final jam segment, Garcia asks Kaukonen if he has a Fender Telecaster guitar and is affirmatively pointed to “that white one.” By the end of the following jam, the group finds a psychedelic, rocking groove that hints at a few familiar-sounding themes.
Having jammed together in public the previous months at San Francisco’s Family Dog at The Great Highway, it’s no surprise that despite being an informal jam, what resulted was a seriously memorable set of improvisation. Listen to Jorma, Jerry, Jack and the unidentified drummer jamming together at the Jefferson Airplane house in San Francisco on October 28, 1969 below: