Kurt Maas was born in 1942 in Neusattl (now Nové Sedlo) in the Egerland, amidst the chaos of war and people displacement. In 1945, his family were expelled from their homes along with the other German Bohemians and sought a new home in Franconia. There, the young Kurt soon began to show his musical streak when the nine year old boy urged his parents to buy him an accordion.
No simple request in the hard times of the early post-war years, however Kurt was given the instrument and, at the age of 14, he was already good enough to earn his own money in cafes and restaurants.
However, when it came to suitable vocational training, Maas’ parents firstly made sure that the young man learnt a proper trade. He went along with this and completed an apprenticeship as a retail salesman but then went straight on to the Hohner Konservatorium in Trossingen to study music. That is where he forged his original plan to go America at the first opportunity so that he could directly explore the essence of jazz at its place of origin, and he set about doing this once his three years of study were completed: Mass formed a trio and got hired by the Home Lines shipping company where he entertained passengers on the regular service between Europe and the USA.
In late 1963, after 18 months at sea, he received a free trip on the SS Homeric and thereby finally managed to fulfil his ambition by enrolling for composition and arrangement at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Kurt Maas was continually shaped by his contact with lecturers but also his closeness to the American jazz greats whose concerts he attended. This is how the desire was created inside him to make jazz training available in Germany, based on the American model. For despite the great interest shown by German musicians, there was practically no university jazz education available there at the time. Kurt Maas sought to change this: back in Germany, he pursued his plan of establishing the ‘Berklee Correspondence Course’, a mail-based, distance learning jazz course in Germany, which however fell through due to legal reasons.
In return, however, it presented a business opportunity that would form the nucleus of Notenversand Kurt Maas. Lawrence Berk, founder of Berklee College, offered Kurt Maas the European distribution rights for the college’s in-house book and sheet music publications. As a result, Maas set up a mail order business which soon became the European ‘bottleneck’ for American sheet music and ensured his fame and reputation in jazz music circles.
Outside of his entrepreneurial activities, the relentless Kurt Maas also pressed ahead with his educational plans. In 1972, the Richard Strauss Academy of Music in Munich (RSK) offered him a teaching position for a jazz course. As a supplementary course for students of classical music, he taught jazz harmonica, jazz arrangement and jazz rhythm and, with the establishment of the RSK big band, he was also able to offer interested students a practical outlet. He himself remained a jazz musician within the Academy of Music but, first and foremost, a lone crusader.
When Martin Maria Krüge first took over the management of the RSK in 1987, Kurt Maas was given free rein to follow his original goal of establishing a permanent jazz department. After four years of preparation, during which Kurt Maas brought on board fellow campaigners such as Leonid Chizhik, Peter O’Mara, Leszek Zadlo, Hermann Breuer, Thomas Zoller and Claus Reichstaller, it became possible in 1991 for the first students to enrol for a jazz course at the RSK.
After years of often fraught dealings with frustrating setbacks, Kurt Maas had managed to establish jazz as a legitimate degree programme at a German university. He remained as head of the jazz department for another 17 years before heading into retirement in 2008.
Kurt Maas’ legacy can be felt in many parts of the complex ‘Jazz in Bayern’ (Jazz in Bavaria) building. A number of the musicians who currently play at club and concert venues in small ensembles or big bands or teach pupils themselves, have attended his course. To show acknowledgement for his achievements, the University of Music and Performing Arts Munich, which merged with the RSK in 2008, created the Kurt Maas Jazz Award. A prize which is intended to honour the best performing students.
And there couldn’t be a more appropriate 1st prize: the winner receives a scholarship for several weeks’ stay at the Berklee College of Music, the jazz institution that meant so much to Kurt Maas and paved the way for him becoming a teacher and businessman.