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Rocking Steady: An Interview with Jack Casady (Part 1)

Jack Casady

As a member of the generation-defining bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, the impact Jack Casady’s bass playing cannot be overstated. His unmistakable tone and melodic bass lines have been the foundation for countless songs, not to mention the inspiration for countless bassists.

While his previous accomplishments are nothing short of incredible, Casady isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Hot Tuna, which he formed with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen in 1968, has been touring fairly consistently since it’s inception. Last year the group released Steady As She Goes, their first studio album in 21 years. The band is currently on a massive tour that is set to stretch throughout the rest of the year.

We caught up with Casady before his concert at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia to get some background on the bass legend, as well as his opinion of the state of the bass. This is part one of that interview. Part two will feature our video interview with Jack, covering the album, his approach to bass playing, gear and more.

Who were your top influences for bass playing in leading up to Jefferson Airplane?

Well at that time, there weren’t a lot of electric bass players. Fender was the name of the game. That was everything. I mean, there were Danelectros and a couple others out in the late ’50s, but the Fender really got that different sound going. I always like the [bassists] who played on the early James Brown stuff. That started to change music and the way the bass sounded, because all of Ray Charles’s stuff was stand-up bass, all of the rockabilly stuff was stand-up bass. But later on when the electric bass started to get in there – you know Buddy Holly used it and a couple of others [as well] – the sound of that low end really started to change.

A lot of my influences were jazz bass players as well: Charles Mingus, Scotty LaFaro, Ray Brown. Those were they guys that I really loved the tone and the way they played. So that’s probably why I play an f-hole bass. I’m always harking back to try to get some of that acoustic bass sound that’s going on with a double bass.

A lot of the early country bands started to use the electric bass. When I was able to start playing regularly in 1960, I bought the first year Fender Jazz bass that came out. The neck was a little narrower than the Precision that I had tried earlier, and it suited me better with [its] two pickups and greater variety of tone. I pretty much started playing then and playing it how I heard it.

Did you get to meet and hang with many of the jazz musicians?

When I listening to Charles Mingus, I was 16 years old, so not really. I’d go to the clubs and I would listen to a lot of people like Yusef Lateef and Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. They’d be in small in clubs and I’d try to soak up as much as I could. I think later on we shared a bill with Dizzy Gillespie. I got a chance to talk with him and a bunch of the guys in his band, so that was a big thrill.

Now I always appreciated guys like Duck Dunn, who did Booker T and the MGs. When I heard him before he did all the Stax backup stuff, doing Green Onions and all that. It was just a tremendous sound. That was one of those early sounds that had that Fender bass sound. And of course, all of the backup stuff that those guys did for Sam and Dave and Otis Redding and all the acts that came through there is just tremendous work, so my hat is off to Duck Dunn.

Also Leroy Hodges who did all the Al Green stuff and O.V. Wright stuff. His bass work is just phenomenal. You know, you hear some of these different people, and you take it into you. You don’t quite know how it’s going to come out in your own style in your own circumstances. You absorb this sort of thing and then you see what’s going to happen with it.

What do you think is the top responsibility for bass players?

Well I think tone is essential. I think tone is your signature as to who you are. Before you get to the notes, and your style and the kind of riffs you like to do or your influences, I think you have to develop and pay attention to the way you make the tone on your instrument and what pleases you. The music builds around the tone. It isn’t just a series of notes or the articulation or the technique. The signature sound of a great musician is his tone and that sets him apart from others, and I think that is essential. That’s the beginning place to start from.

You know, there are many ways to skin a cat. I’ve seen many different people use so many different fingerings and techniques and whatnot on an instrument that work. I don’t think there’s any one way. At the end of the day you want to be able to articulate the ideas that you have in your head, not be a slave to what you’ve already heard by trying to mimic others playing. At some point in your young life as you start learning the instrument, you will want to get into a situation where you start to create your own music. Up until that point, you’re doing a lot of woodshedding, you’re working on your technique and you’re working on making those ideas that you hear, and you want to try to execute them and execute them well and with articulation.

What do you think of bassists that play it as a completely solo instrument?

You’re a musician first, and you just happen to play the bass. You know? I was really fortunate to awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in October from Bass Player Magazine. Larry Graham, myself and James Jamerson were awarded that night. There must have been 30 or 40 bass players, and at the end of the night there were two jams where there were 13 or 14 people in each jam. I was listening to the various bass players that had come in from all of the world for this event here in Los Angeles. There are just some wonderful, amazing musicians that are playing really interesting things on the bass guitar. It’s been fascinating to watch over the years.

People treat the instrument as part of the orchestra, and treat it without the boundaries that it had been traditionally oriented with.

So many bassists cite you as an influence, including Anthony Jackson…

Yeah, Anthony is the one who presented me with the award. He’s such a sweetheart and a monster on the instrument, who developed a whole genre. He really developed that whole new sound on expanding the sound and number of strings on the instrument. He’s just fabulous.

So what’s it like for you to be cited as an influence by someone like that?

It’s terrific. It’s very humbling… You just don’t think of that stuff as you’re going along and doing your career. You’re dealing with your own aspect of making music in the band that you do. You don’t really think of the retrospect in all of that.

Of course, most people know you from Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, but you’ve played with tons of great musicians in your career. Could you tell us a little bit about playing with Hendrix on the original “Voodoo Chile”?

Jack CasadyIt was great. Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and I started to hang out a little bit together because of them coming through San Francisco and playing the Fillmore Auditorium. So, we had a practice facility the next building over from the Fillmore and for a period of time Bill Graham, who ran all that, was our manager.

After doing the Monterey Pop Festival and coming to do regular shows at the Fillmore and Winterland and all that went with it, we’d hook up and hang out. He’d come over while they were setting up and doing sound checks at Fillmore, and we’d do some jams. And we shared some bills together. Being young musicians, we had the chance to appreciate each other and do what young musicians like to do, which is play at every chance they get.

After doing a couple of those sessions, we formed up a friendship and Mitch Mitchell and I became good friends as well. When we were in New York City – Jefferson Airplane I think was doing the Dick Cavett show – and Jimi was recording what would become a double album and a landmark album [Electric Ladyland]. He was in the middle of it at the time, and he had just broken away from his producer, Chas Chandler, and was pretty much on his own and producing his own album.

In any case, after doing our show early in the evening, Jorma and I went over to hear Traffic, who I believe was doing their first tour of America. They were playing at a small club called Steve Paul’s Scene. We went over and hung out. Jimi walked in later in the evening and listened to the set. He knew all of these guys because he had been living in England for the last couple years. He invited us all over after [the show at] 2:30 in the morning or something like that to his studio to watch him work on some his album.

Early in the morning, he said “lets play a blues”. So Mitch, Jimi and I, along with Steve Winwood, kicked over it for a couple minutes. Jimi broke a string, and so while he was changing his string we noodled around a little bit and got the feel of the song, then we did the song in one take. But then, it was a 15-minute blues song, and nobody ever thought it would ever go on an album. That was the exciting thing about the time. The three-minute format was beginning to fade with the songs.

In any case, we all forgot about it and around 7:30 in the morning we climbed into a station wagon to go down to D.C. to do our next show.

About a month later he called me in San Francisco and said “do you mind if we put this jam on the album?” I said, “That would be great. Of course I don’t mind.”

And the rest is history, right?

I guess so. But I will say this, Jimi was a very gracious player to play with. All those guys were. People have asked me what it was like to play with him, and it was great. He was a sweet, gentle guy.

Special thanks to Phil McKenna, Tony Soll, Julie Bruce, Dug Mug Swanson, Taylor TheBassist Simensky and Will Marks, who contributed questions for this interview.

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