I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Casady, bass player for the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, in advance of his acoustic set at Northampton’s Academy of Music on 4/28. Our conversation was plagued by some technical difficulties. We were using zoom over a tour buses sketchy wifi while traveling in a remote area on the way to Texas for a show. This situation made the audio difficult to use for radio but the chat was funny and informative so I will attempt a transcript below. Prior to getting started, Jack noted the huge amount of CD’s in our station’s collection. He showed me via zoom the large vinyl collection they have on the tour bus. He also mischievously showed me the sleeping compartment of Jorma catching a nap. Jokes about being over 80 commenced! Jack in a playful mood asked if I wanted his laptop to show his face horizontal or vertical! Zoom, indeed. As another aside, Jack reminds me that Jorma’s birthday will be celebrated at their NYC show at Carnegie Hall where the band will play the album, “Burgers”, itself celebrating 50 years since it’s release. Jack also will be turning 78 in mid April too.
Jack, Welcome to NineVolt Heart. Can we go back to the early days of your collaboration with Jorma Kaukenan? Tell us about the Triumphs?
JC: You know, Ed, when you’re young and I was 14 I had met Jorma (then called Jerry) through my older brother Charles Casady. We all loved music, we all had record collections. We would all go back to our homes which was right near the High School (in Washington DC), it was walking distance. Nobody took the bus. Anyway, we started hanging out and he played guitar, I played guitar and as I pointed out before, in normal times our age difference would have meant we couldn’t be friends. Back then, I was in Junior High while Jorma was finishing up High School. We probably wouldn’t have been buddies because the age gap would’ve been more severe at our younger years. Now, it isn’t an issue. We discovered our mutual interests around music and we both played together. One of our girlfriends at the time got us a gig playing a party in the basement. I think we got paid $6 which was big money and that started our career pretty much in earnest. We played a bunch in that year (Jorma’s last year of high school) we played all over DC where there were a whole series of bars that featured music, places you could play and not tell your parents what you were doing.
NVH: You might not have been old enough to even enter these places?
JC: No, I was fourteen at the time. You needed to be eighteen to play in these clubs! I believe I took my older brothers draft card (he had turned eighteen) and we went to Jorma’s house. His grandfather had a mimeograph machine, hand cranked. It would only print on one side. The draft card was just a plain white piece of paper, white with the form on the top, a form card. There was something new happening at the time. It was called lamination. I put this all together and that’s how I got into all these clubs for our gigs. But, of course, I have pictures of what I looked like then…I looked fourteen!
NVH: Ingenuity, at it’s best. Tell me about the Washington DC scene for music at this time. You had lots of clubs with jazz and some with bluegrass…
JC: It was fantastic! First of all, let me start at the top. You had the Library of Congress! I used to go down there early on, when I really started to get interested in a lot of folk music. I studied a lot of folk music including English and Irish ballads. I’d go to this facility and go to the music section. I’d pull out all these old records. You go into this little booth and listen to these ’78RPM records. Also, at our fingertips, I’d have access to all these great record stores like Waxy Maxy’s Record store, they had all the new singles. I started collecting all these old ’78s, now they were 45RPM, the great R&B singles, the blues singles. Those blues guys released all these great singles, the Chicago blues guys did. My older brother and I collected this kind of music. At the same time, all the clubs in Washington had all this music playing live. In the late 50’s early 60’s it was the beginning of the jazz revolution with the chance to see Charlie Mingus who I saw many times. Also Wes Montgomery, Ornette Coleman, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy; all these jazz greats. It was an incredible opportunity. I’d go to the Howard Theater for a dollar fifty and see Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. It was just great music. I had a couple of buddies of mine who all were going to Antioch for college (including Jorma where he learned his finger picking style). I had a good buddy Ronnie McDonald, drummer and singer, that we formed a band with just before Jorma went off to college. Ronnie and I would go to all of these clubs around Washington DC, they were primarily African American clubs, you know, and there’d be two teenage white guys walking in. But it was great opportunity on so many levels. In Washington DC a label was just rediscovering Mississippi John Hurt and that sound. Whereas, Jorma was getting into the music of Reverend Gary Davis out in Ohio (at Antioch). At sixteen I got a work furlough working at NYC, we would go up to Gerdes Folk City where we’d get a chance to see all these folk and blues guys like Reverend Gary Davis and Dave Van Ronk. It was the beginnings of a “blues revolution” on all these college campuses and folkies like Bob Dylan just beginning.
NVH: That must’ve been a pretty incredible experience; a musical education as well. When Jorma went to Antioch, you continued to play music in the DC area.?
JC: Well, he was going to college, remember I was still in high school preparing for college. Our musical career hadn’t been foretold. Our parents on both sides expected us to go to college and get a real job.
NVH: Like a dentist, like your Dad?
JC: My father was a dentist, his brother was a Doctor. My mother’s father and brother were in Civil Engineering.
NVH: I was curious about the conversation between you and Jorma when he invited you to join the Jefferson Airplane? He had gotten himself into this electric band and you were kind of skeptical (Jerry the purist!)
JC: He left as Jerry the flat picking strummer and he returned as Jorma the finger picking stylist! Earlier we would be doing these things like Buddy Holly songs, Johnny Cash but he came back as “a classical guitarist” playing melody with really interesting chord changes and singing folk blues. He was many steps away from where he was as a kid. When Jorma went to college, I was in a rhythm and blues band, this band was playing in adult clubs. This was before the british invasion thing happened. I had stepped into the adult world musically, we played Ray Charles stuff, R&B stuff like Bobby Blue Bland played and later on Kingston Trio and that kind of stuff. At this point, I was playing professionally in these clubs while I was still in high school. At that time I was working like five nights a week, getting home at like two thirty at night and then getting up to go to school at 8AM. In the last year of high school, I had this great situation, one of my teachers knew what I was doing. He said “You know Jack, I got a solution. If you join the school band, that class won’t start until 10:30AM”. The problem was the school band didn’t need a guitarist, so I had to take up the Trombone! I tried to blast my way through that but I was really atrocious. My band music teacher shook his head and said I couldn’t play and march at the same time. But he knew what I was doing and he took pity on me and passed me in the class. I never had to march. In the end I could sleep a little more in the morning coming in at 10:30 instead. It was a fun time.
But in the club work I really learned a lot. Those bands at that time had at least two horns, trumpets or saxaphones. So as a result, you learned a lot of these arrangements for big band in the late forties. Things had not got syncopated yet, so most of the stuff the bass players were doing was “walking basslines and stuff” almost always played on stand up bass. Jack tells about playing four sets a night of music a day for a couple of weeks and it paid $115!! He describes the plaid tuxedos and the whole scene. It was an adult scene, kind of like a LasVegas atmosphere. This was all pre-Beatles. It’s when I really got my chops on bass guitar. Our band leader said we’ve got this bass player, but he’s not working out. He doesn’t have a feel for this music. Would you consider playing bass.?? How hard could it be? I’ll give you fifty bucks! I said ‘You’re On”. I did the gig and I fell in love with the instrument. I think in retrospect, I could’ve made an OK guitar player but I think I made a pretty good bass player.
NVH: Bass Player Magazine agrees, Jack. They’ve awarded you a Life Time Achievement Award!!
JC: I just liked the register. When I think back about it, there was lot of classical music in Washington DC. I went to see a lot of ballets and I always loved the low end section. It just “said” something special. That Summer of 1960, Fender had just come out with the Fender Jazz bass that Summer. I had a couple of businesses going on; lawn cutting businesses in the neighborhood, I sold the “Evening Star” newspaper, so I saved up along with money I made in clubs. I remember that bass cost $270 which was a really expensive instrument at the time. The first bass I owned 1958 Telecaster was $115. I wish I kept that. The Fender I ended up purchasing had two pickups, I like that because it had more tone. I started approaching the instrument with two fingers on the right hand, it just felt really natural to me.
NVH: This entire time Jorma didn’t know you were playing bass. Or maybe He didn’t believe you! Did you feel when he asked you to join the Airplane that you were ready?
JC: We were young kids. But I had been playing professionally for some time. He asked me in 1965 and I’d been playing bass since 1960 and music for much longer than that. Don’t forget, when I joined that band out there (The early genesis of Jefferson Airplane), they were not professional musicians. As I’ve said before, if you were putting a band together, those players would not have come to mind. Paul Kantner came out of the folk twelve string scene, he was a strummer raised in the Weavers vocal tradition. Marty Balin was a pop singer who then got into folk groups like Peter, Paul and Mary. Jorma came out of the nitty gritty blues scene. Even Grace Slick came out her folk work in the Great Society. So when I came out to San Francisco to join the band, I had the most professional experience among all of them because I had worked steadily in that environment.
AFTER A Lost CONNECTION….Jack resumes. In Washington, I had lots of mutual friends who were in the Appalachian folk music as well as folks like Pete Seeger. I was very interested in that musical connection as well what I was doing playing my night time gig playing other people’s music. It was around this time in 1965 that I re-enrolled in college in the Fall because the Viet Nam war was gaining some steam and every young man had a draft card. You either went to school or you got drafted. So I was talking with Jorma and he said ,”you wouldn’t believe what I just did. I just joined this group, this folk rock group called the Jefferson Airplane.” And I laughed, “You, the purist! in a folk rock group!” That had just started to be a concept at that time. Dylan had gone electric and bands like the Lovin’ Spoonful were beginning to appear. This was a time of unrest and lots of African American riots and unrest, there was a lot of rebellion, all this was going on at the same time. Young people like Bob Dylan started writing about what was going on right around them. This was really becoming a way for artists to express themselves.
So Jorma says, “Hey Listen, we need a bass player here, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m in school, staying out of the Army, and playing a lot of bass. I don’t think he had remembered at this point that I’d been playing bass since I was sixteen. We hadn’t physically played together in that way with him as a guitarist and me as a bass player.” He said,” Listen, we got a manager who promises he’ll pay us $50 bucks a week whether we work or not! Why don’t you come out.” I said,” You’re On!” In any case, I flew out on the first plane I’d ever taken. Jorma picked me up at the airport and he looked at me and said,” You Better Be Able To Play the Bass”. I guess that worked out.
NVH: Sometimes a Jefferson Airplane set included an acoustic set with just you two. Was that the beginning of what you might have envisioned the Hot Tuna experience?
JC: I mean we always played that way when we got a chance. But let me back up a bit and tell you about the recording industry at that time. The tradition was a record company would hire a singer or a group of singers, they would hire someone to write a song, the singers would do the song, then they would hire players to record the instruments in a studio. Then, they would hire someone to go out and do that track live. At this time there was nobody who was writing their own music to record themselves. Even the Beach Boys didn’t play on all their songs, on some tracks it was studio musicians like Hal Blaine and Kenny Rodgers and all kinds of folks. But for the bands in San Francisco, they would die to have someone else play their guitar parts. With that in mind, once we gained some steam in the studio after we had a hit with “Surrealistic Pillow” we were able to call our shots in the studio at that point. Even with that recording, we approached it to let each song stand on it’s own, we didn’t go in to the studio with any pre-set idea that we would play it acoustic or a duo. This was happening with folks like the Beatles as well. They were moving from a rather strict studio experience to a different sound and even presentation that suited them better. We would spend weeks in the studio to try to capture that experience. Not a collection of singles but the album was a concept in itself. This was really a departure at the time. With that in mind, as we started to go through all the recordings trying to find enough material for the album, maybe five or six songs on a side. Jorma had played so brilliantly on “Embryonic Journey” just really sparkling. We all looked at each other and said, “Why Not”. It wasn’t like we had a discussion like that’s Great or that sounds fine. We didn’t sit down for like a half hour and hashed out whether or not it was going to be on the album. It just was. Some many years go by and so much stuff gets written, people want to know our conceptual thought process was, agonizing over something. At times we might fight over chord changes or something like that, but Jefferson Airplane, at it’s best ,we worked really well together and inspired us in the studio. The band had it’s moments and it’s run of over seven years. I think the strength of the Airplane was that despite some drastic differences over music, we all got along. We were still young and that’s why in the 70’s, 1972 or so, Jorma and I really wanted to concentrate on the direction of the kind of music we wanted to do together. It really wouldn’t fit in the format of the Jefferson Airplane. Marty was writing a lot and Paul too. It ended up being like a lot of groups with a lot of talent, that everyone would get like two songs on an album or something like that. But, in the beginning it was all organic how it all came together, that’s why it worked, that was the strength. Of course, the weakness was that everyone was still growing and wanted to try out new stuff. It all follows a course, like a river, the river flows.
NVH: When you and Jorma play as a duo, Is there something about his style, especially his finger picking style, that allows you to be more creative as a bass player?
JC: Oh, absolutely! We just had so much fun these last week of shows. It’s really something special for me, as a musician. Jorma composes on the guitar like a pianist at two ends. His thumb is like the left hand and he can move with contrapuntal bass lines moving up and down and his first two fingers with the melody; so it’s complete music. Jorma doesn’t need me to play this music. So my challenge is, as a bass player is mostly I think about it as an orchestral arrangement of how to bring this music together. Sometimes we’re playing stuff together, sometimes it’s working in a contrapuntal manner, sometimes it’s working inside and outside the melody. I work with phrasing a lot. That’s one thing I’ve always done with all my bands. I want to support the vocal anyway possible; not just with a drone bass but also with the phrasing, the meaning of the lyrics and all that stuff. So, it’s a great challenge for me to add something that makes us “Hot Tuna”. It’s also fun for me to figure out how to play, in the beginning, in the folk tradition like Reverend Gary Davis and others who are usually solo finger picking guitar works. How to incorporate my bass parts into that, I was approaching that as I would a piano. So, how to keep that music lively and nimble but not so anchored down in a rhythmic fashion. That kind of music is a real challenge for me. For me as a bass player, the music Jorma plays makes it possible for us to have a show each night that’s thoroughly exciting and fun to play. We’re playing stuff we’ve never heard before. That’s why every night, I’ve been asked you guys have been playing 66 years together, do you get bored. The answer is; Absolutely Not!
NVH: Jorma say’s you never play the same thing twice!
JC: That’s his way of complementing my playing my desire to channel a little “Eric Dolphy” into my playing. I try not to fall into the trap of “bettering yourself”; you play something tonight and then you don’t want to repeat it. I have to remind myself that every night is different. It’s not just trying to play different notes but tapping into different atmospheres. It’s more about, “how do I hear the music tonight.? How do I hear the melody in these sections tonight where I’m allowed to “set the stage” in a certain direction.?
NVH: Well Jack Casady, I want to thank you for your generosity and we are all looking forward to your duo show at the Academy of Music in Northampton on Thursday 4/28.