With each heavenly keystroke on his Steinway piano, Kurt Kaiser’s fingers open the door to a place closer to God.
He is a master artist who has passionately honed his craft during 70 years as a professional musician. Kaiser’s work playing, arranging and producing has been crucial to the evolution of modern-day church music.
From Kaiser’s early days in Chicago live radio, his music has often involved improvisation.
“They would say, ‘When the red light goes on, you do 10 seconds worth of chase music’ or ‘15 seconds of positive open air, major key.’ Or sometimes they’d say, ‘Do sinister music,’” he says.
Kaiser began playing for live radio at age 12 in 1946 for WMBI, a station connected to the Moody Bible Institute, and he was heavily influenced by jazz music, which facilitated his ability to improvise.
“You develop a kind of feel. Oscar Peterson, who was a great Jazz pianist, had it, what they call ‘chops,’ so that he could do whatever he wanted to do on the piano, and do it immediately,” Kaiser says as he snaps his fingers.
At age 16, Kaiser left home to accept an invitation to work for another radio station in Billings, Montana. There, he wrote music and played the keyboards for a quartet. It is also where he met Pat, his wife of 61 years. From there, the invitations to make music have never stopped, taking Kaiser all over the country and around the world.
“I had disparate kinds of experiences in music, all of them very interesting, very good, and in retrospect, very important to who I am today,” Kaiser says.
In 1958, Kaiser traveled internationally with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. The tour included Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and parts of Europe.
“We didn’t go to places tourists see; we saw the tough places,” Kaiser says. “We were in Burma at a leprosarium, and people came out and sang to us—people with no noses, no eyebrows, fingers missing, toes missing, and they sang to us, ‘God be with you ’til we meet again.’ I’ll always remember that.”
Kaiser studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and earned two degrees from Northwestern University. He met Jarrell McCracken through a mutual friend, and soon Kaiser joined McCracken’s Christian music company, Word Inc.
In 1959, Kaiser moved to Waco and started as director of artists and repertoire, later becoming vice president and director of music for Word. He has more than 300 copyrighted songs to his name, including Pass it On and Oh How He Loves You and Me. After retiring from Word, he began Kurt Kaiser Music, which Kaiser still runs today.
Kaiser has arranged and produced albums for many gifted artists, including Kathleen Battle, Ernie Ford, Larnelle Harris, Burl Ives, Ken Medema, Christopher Parkening, Joni Eareckson Tada, Ethel Waters, and Anne Martindale Williams. Kaiser became a master at matching singers with the right tunes.
“I know what singers like to sing, what kinds of swoops they like to take, what kind of lyrics they like, and I learned a lot of that at Word,” Kaiser says. “Many times singers selected music that didn’t fit their style of their range. I love matching their personality to their music.”
“Directing the Baylor Religious Hour Choir really was a wonderful experience.”
Kaiser has traveled extensively overseas recording and performing. He has recorded in England at least 30 times. For well over 30 years, Kaiser appeared in concerts with George Beverly Shea, often described as “America’s beloved gospel singer.”
One of Kaiser’s most memorable experiences was in London with Cliff Barrows. During a large gathering, a radio hookup connected them to Wales, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
“Cliff would say, ‘Now all the people in Cardiff, please sing the first stanza,’ and we’d sit and listen. The folks in Edinburgh would then sing a stanza, followed by those in Glasgow. We could hear each other through the radio. Then we would all join in together. That kind of thing was amazing,” Kaiser says.
From 1965 through 1970, Kaiser served as director of the Baylor Religious Hour Choir, leading the BRH Choir in venues throughout the southern states.
“Directing the BRH Choir really was a wonderful experience,” Kaiser says. “Those kids were so special. Even today, I hear from many of them.”
At the same time, Kaiser and his friend Ralph Carmichael began writing Christian musicals geared to reach young people. Their first musical, Tell It Like It Is, included the famous song Pass It On, which the BRH Choir performed on NBC television in New York City.
Kaiser has recorded numerous solo albums at the piano, in addition to conducting choral workshops and performing solo concerts. He received a Dove Award for his album Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.
In 1992, he received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Kaiser received the Hines Sims Award for Faithfulness in Service. In 2001, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Kaiser holds honorary doctorates from Trinity College in Illinois and from Baylor. He helped to found Waco’s DaySpring Baptist Church, where he directed the choir for 10 years.
The Kaisers’ four children hold five Baylor degrees among them: Kristine Olson, BSEd ’80; Kent Kaiser, BBA ’81; Craig Kaiser, BA ’84, JD ’86; and Tim Kaiser, BBA ’85.
Kurt and Pat Kaiser have supported the Baylor Bear Foundation, The Dick Baker Baylor Religious Hour Choir Fund, and both men’s and women’s basketball excellence funds. Kurt has received The W.R. White Award and has been a member of the School of Music Board of Advisors, Friends of Truett Seminary, Baylor Waco Foundation, the Basketball Practice Facility Steering Committee, Old Main Society, 1845 Society, the Fast Break Club, the Tip Off Club and Strecker Museum Friends.
In 2001, Dr. W. Scott Livesay established The Kurt and Patricia Kaiser Endowed Music Scholarship Fund for Baylor students enrolled in the School of Music and to honor Kaiser for his contributions to Christian music and the Baylor music program.
Kaiser, 82, claims he never thought about a backup plan should his music career fail to pan out.
“All I’ve ever known is music. If I needed a Plan B, I’d probably be pumping gas or something like that,” he says.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that life is made up of phases. When you’re young, you write simplistically. And then in midlife you become very busy in your writing. Later in life, you write simplistically again. Now I just do the sorts of music that are important to me.”