Where do you fit a 16-piece band with a big brass sound? If in the past the answer was, “Anywhere you can,” the answer now is: in “Little Blue,” a building band leader Ron Maas had built just for the band to practice in — they started practicing in the space in October of 2013.
Maas, a businessman all his life, as well as a musician for the past 75 years, took over the Thunder Mountain Big Band — formerly the Mel Flood Big Band — about 20 years ago when Flood headed South, conducting band practices in a space in “Big Blue,” the building he owns near the Federal Building, and “Little Blue’s” next-door neighbor. When the business operating in “Big Blue” needed the practice space, Maas decided to build another building for the band, and for other musical groups.
“Little Blue” is two stories, with an apartment upstairs that Maas rents to violinist Linda Rosenthal, who uses it as a studio; the downstairs space is set up with risers, chairs and music stands — the perfect size for the Thunder Mountain Big Band, though Maas did say higher ceilings might have been nicer.
On Tuesday morning, Maas sat listening to recorded big band music in “Little Blue,” beside a table spread with charts (music arrangements, mostly by Dave Wolpe, whom Maas said is a favorite); nearby is a set of filing cabinets filled with more than 900 charts.
While the building was built to house the big band’s practices on Monday nights from 7-8:30 p.m., the space is also used by other musical groups, including the student symphony and his son’s music class.
“When things come along that are worth while, I try to let them use the space,” Maas said. “Anything to promote good music.”
Maas said it usually takes a community of 100,000 to support a big band, but Juneau does it with around 30,000 — there are a lot of talented people in Juneau, Maas believes. There’s inevitably turnover in the band, but he said there seems to always be someone to take over. Todd Hunt sometimes fills in and Bob Hutton of Hoonah takes a ferry or plane to Juneau to perform with the band on occasion.
Music has long been a part of Maas’ life, and part of his family’s life. His wife plays violin in the symphony, his son is a music teacher at Mendenhall River Community School and his daughter played in the Thunder Mountain Big Band for many years. Maas, who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, recalled listening to big band music over the radio as entertainment during the Great Depression — and he’s loved it all his life since.
He started playing with bands starting at 19, traveling and playing trumpet, and had many bands of his own down south, but in 1960 decided it was time for a change and packed up for Alaska, where he’s been ever since, still playing music at age 86.
“I started about 75 years ago and haven’t gotten any better since,” Maas said with a laugh, though he’ll admit he’s always had a knack for it.
In addition to his musical endeavors, Maas started Taku Glacier Lodge, has been in real estate and had a boat charter business for many years; his success in business has allowed him to support music in Juneau through gestures like building “Little Blue.” The Thunder Mountain Big Band also provides four scholarships a year to Sitka Fine Arts Camp, Maas said.
The Thunder Mountain Big Band mostly plays big events — Maas said it might be because they won’t all fit at smaller ones — including the Governor’s Inaugural Ball, Juneau Jazz & Classics’ Swing in the New Year and, recently, a formal dance at the University of Alaska Southeast. Maas said people are welcome to drop by a Monday night practice.
To follow the band, find them on Facebook or watch the calendar for future performances.