Born in Washington, D.C., the son of Beatrice Love (née Levine) and Jorma Ludwig Kaukonen, Jorma Kaukonen had Finnish paternal grandparents and Russian Jewish ancestry on his mother's side. Kaukonen was a founding member of the popular psychedelic San Francisco-based band Jefferson Airplane, which scored two Top 10 radio hits in 1967 with "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."
Kaukonen learned to play guitar as a teenager in Washington, D.C. But before moving to the D.C. area, Jorma and family lived in the Philippines and other locales as he followed his father's career from assignment to assignment before returning to the place of his birth. As a teenager in Washington he and future Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady (who at the time played six-string guitar) formed a band named The Triumphs. Kaukonen departed Washington for studies at Antioch College where friend Ian Buchanan taught him fingerstyle guitar playing. Buchanan also introduced Kaukonen to the music of Reverend Gary Davis, whose songs have remained important parts of Kaukonen's repertoire throughout his career.
In 1962 Kaukonen moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and enrolled at Santa Clara University. During this time he taught guitar lessons at Benner Music Company in San Jose. As a self-described blues purist, Kaukonen never had any ambition to play in a rock band. He played as a solo act in coffee houses and can be heard accompanying a young Janis Joplin on acoustic guitar on an historic 1964 recording (known as "The Typewriter Tapes" because of the obtrusive sound of Kaukonen's first wife, Margareta, typing in the background). Invited to attend a Jefferson Airplane rehearsal by founding member Paul Kantner, Kaukonen found his imagination excited by the arsenal of effects available to electric guitar and later said, "I was sucked in by technology.
As a member of Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen's primary guitar was a Gibson ES-345, noted for the visible Varitone dial on his guitar and the signature 345 logo on the headstock. Jorma presently endorses Martin Guitars. In 2010, Martin Guitars released the Martin M-30 Jorma Kaukonen Custom Artist Edition. This guitar was designed by Jorma using ideas from 2 Martin guitars that he had previously been playing - a David Bromberg Custom Artist Edition and an M-5 prototype.
Jorma also uses and endorses the Fishman Loudbox amp.
In 1984, Kaukonen appeared on Robert Hunter's Amagamalin Street. This was the third album released by Relix Records, a label, founded by Les Kippel, that specialized in bands from the San Francisco Bay Area. Relix also released Splashdown, featuring a rare performance by Hot Tuna on WQIV, a now-defunct radio station in New York. Kippel was instrumental in reuniting Kaukonen and Casady in 1985 for a Hot Tuna theater tour. Relix Records remained Hot Tuna's record label until 2000, and also released Classic Hot Tuna Acoustic, Classic Hot Tuna Electric, Live at Sweetwater, and Live at Sweetwater Two.
Two notable projects featuring Kaukonen were David Crosby's debut solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name, on Atlantic (1971) and Warren Zevon's Transverse City on Virgin in 1989. In 1993, he collaborated with ex-Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten in recording numerous arrangements of "Embryonic Journey". The resulting tracks were released as Embryonic Journey, the album, in 1994 on the Relix label. In 1999, he played several gigs with Phil Lesh and Friends. In 2000, he appeared with jam band Widespread Panic during their summer tour.
With his wife Vanessa, Kaukonen currently owns and operates the Fur Peace Ranch, a 119-acre (0.48 km2) music and guitar camp in the hills of southeast Ohio, north of Pomeroy; complete with a 32 track studio. He is currently under contract as a solo artist to Red House Records and still records and tours with Jack Casady and other friends such as Barry Mitterhoff as Hot Tuna. His 2002 album Blue Country Heart, also released as a 5.1 single layer SACD, was widely acclaimed by critics as one of the definitive examples of American "Depression Era " music and features Kaukonen backed by an all-star Nashville bluegrass band. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Recent solo albums include Stars in My Crown (2007) and River of Time (2009).