Rock legend Casady still making vital music

Jack Casady, founding member of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, will perform at the Wanee festival April 19-21, 2012.

Jack Casady, founding member of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, will perform at the Wanee festival April 19-21, 2012.

It was, perhaps, fittingly ironic that a couple of D.C.-area East Coast boys were among the architects of the psychedelic San Francisco music scene that spawned such late-’60s era rock icons as the Grateful Dead, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sly & the Family Stone, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane.

In fact, it was bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen who melded their unique take on the wide and varied musical influences around the nation’s capital into two of that era’s most influential collectives: the head-trip psychedelia of the Jefferson Airplane and the improvisational jazzy blues-rock of Hot Tuna.

Some 50 years later, the pair of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees are still making vital music with Hot Tuna and passing on elements of their musical legacy to generations of budding musicians at Kaukonen’s Ohio-based Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. They’ll bring both to the Wanee Music Festival near Live Oak, Fla., on April 19-21.

“Our music with the Airplane and with Hot Tuna was definitely influenced by being at the cultural crossroads of the Washington, D.C. area in the ‘50s and early ‘60s,” Casady said in an exclusive interview with The Albany Herald. “We’d listen to rhythm and blues at the old Howard Theatre and hear country, classical, jazz, blues and bluegrass coming up from the Appalachians at the various clubs in the area.

“We might see Ray Charles at the Howard one night, some of the bluegrass greats like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs at a local tavern the next. Plus, we had all those wonderful field recordings at the Library of Congress that you could lock yourself into a room and listen to all day. With all of that music available, Jorma and I developed a great appreciation for all forms of music.”

Casady and Kaukonen played together with various cover bands in the D.C. area before the guitarist left for the West Coast and Santa Clare University in San Francisco. In 1965, he gave his old bandmate/bass player a call and encouraged him to move west. Kaukonen had helped put together the Jefferson Airplane, and he needed a bass player.

“It was a really thrilling and exciting time,” Casady said. “The music was pure, and everyone was so generous of their time with each other. It was a unique kind of time that I don’t think you’ll ever see happen again.”

The Airplane brought singer Grace Slick on board in 1967, and soon they were more than just a part of the burgeoning San Francisco scene. Hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” from their classic album “Surrealistic Pillow” brought superstardom, and over the next seven years the band’s flame burned white hot.

“Those first years, from ‘65 to around ‘70, were the peak years,” Casady said. “Of course, my reference to that time is a young man’s reference, but just starting out a musical career in that atmosphere was thrilling. It was very unlike anything that was going on at the time in New York and Los Angeles.”

Their musical hunger not sated by their gigs with the Airplane, Casady and Kaukonen formed the more bluesy Hot Tuna in 1970 as an outlet for their boundless energy. The pair left the Airplane in 1972, and they’ve continued a career that has spanned decades and includes their excellent 2011 Tuna release “Steady as She Goes.”

Casady took time out from his schedule to talk with The Herald about his iconic past, his relationship with Kaukonen and plans for the Wanee Festival:

ALBANY HERALD: Music’s obviously been a large part of your life for so long. Did you imagine you’d still be making new and vital music some 50 years after you started?

JACK CASADY: It’s a terrific thing for me, because music has always been such a huge part of my life. Since I was 11, I always wanted to be a musician. I think Jorma and my love for music and respect for each other have allowed us to get beyond the make-it-or-break-it world of pop music by keeping our musical keel a little more broad than most.

AH: So many young artists over the last decades have been influenced by your music. Does that create a sense of “giving back” to an art form you obviously love?

JC: Absolutely. I recall when I was young how I was influenced by the jazz and big-band music of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Those records gave me an appreciation that allowed me to create my own musical perspective. For instance, I discovered Jellyroll Morton, and I loved listening to the “stories” in his songs that only he could tell. That thrill of early discovery is part of what we try to pass along.

AH: Let’s go back, if you will, to that San Francisco music scene you helped establish. It’s been glamorized and demonized by different people. What was it really like?

JC: It was amazing to be out there on the street in full gear, so to speak, for that period of time. It was really thrilling, exciting just to be a part of such a pure musical community. Everyone was so generous with their time and willing to share with each other. I don’t think you’ll see a time like that again.

AH: Was it odd for you, coming from the East Coast, to be such a vital part of that purely West Coast scene?

JC: Well, I was a little more acerbic than the typical Californian. It took a while for me to get the D.C. aspect out, that club circuit thing of playing other people’s music six or seven nights a week, to the emphasis on writing and recording your own music. Jorma and I had that folk circuit thing going for us, Marty (Balin) was a pure pop vocalist, and Grace (Slick) had her own unique talents. Everyone brought their own influences to the mix, and that allowed us to develop our own style.

AH: You were a founding member of two of the most influential bands in rock music history. Do you ever look at that from a historical perspective and feel a little overwhelmed?

JC: I don’t think about it day-to-day, but as you get older and reflect you do sometimes realize how amazing it is that things fell into place at that certain time. Sometimes I look back and don’t have a real emotional connection, but sometimes it’s all emotions.

AH: How much of the music you make today is influenced by your musical past? Or are you always looking for new musical directions?

JC: I always look for at least a feeling that’s new. There are still only 12 musical notes, so at this point it’s a matter of trying to play the right notes. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and sometimes they resonate with me deeply and sometimes not at all. It’s all the same process, and I think the different things I experience present themselves at different times.

AH: Your and Jorma’s relationship has outlasted most every other musical relationship ... heck, most marriages. Is there a magic between you two?

JC: There’s a delicate balance where we give each other space, but there’s also the fact that we enjoy that we still get to do this. I think we both try to tune in to the essence of the moment that we’re in.

AH: Are there musical memories that stand out for you over your career?

JC: I’ve seen every kind of venue, place, condition you can imagine. What I try to do is make a connection; it’s something I call “the ghost.” I try to make the ghost appear. That’s when it’s cool; that’s when you can look back and say “Wow.”

AH: You’ve played with and continue to play with a lot of musicians. Are there any young musicians you’re impressed with?

JC: I don’t like to name names. I just try to listen to and dissect as many kinds of music and as many artists’ music as I can. I listen to a lot of electronic music, to the textures and atmosphere, to see what draws me in. There are just so many talented people making music it keeps me humble.

AH: There’s not a lot left in your career that you haven’t done. Are there things, though, that you still want to accomplish?

JC: Not that I can articulate. I just try to have an open mind and be prepared for opportunities that come my way.

AH: Is a show like the Wanee Festival fun for you?

JC: It is, actually. It’s a great opportunity to hear other bands in a format that’s so open and out of control. The Wanee Festival gives us a chance to open that aspect of our endeavors and play our electric Hot Tuna music for a large number of fans.

AH: I can’t let you go without asking your memories of Woodstock.

JC: Being on stage and looking out at all those people was like watching something amoeba-like take place. Everyone expected it to be fairly large, but we just kept watching the crowd enlarge by leaps and bounds. There was a sense of chaos, but I think that festival showed you can bring a generation together and create a signature event.