Thomas Nassi was born Thoma Nashi (Nasji), in Dardha, Albania. Nassi showed early talent in music, first in violin, and then flute. He emigrated to the United States from Greece in 1914 at age 22, first working at a paper company in Maine. He entered the New England Conservatory (NEC) in 1916, majoring in flute performance and conducting. During the next three years Nassi may have achieved one of the most phenomenal records for a conservatory student ever compiled in the United States. In his first year at NEC Nassi organized the first Albanian-American (VATRA) Band in Worcester. Commuting by railroad, he personally trained many of the factory workers who made up most of the ensemble. At the same time, he organized the first choirs in Albanian Orthodox parishes in Boston, Southbridge, and Worcester. He also served as a substitute flutist in the Boston Symphony under conductors Karl Muck and Pierre Monteux.
Nassi graduated from NEC in 1918, in which year he also married Olympia Berishi Tsika. Olympia Tsika was a talented singer who had emigrated to the United States from the very same town (Dardha) in Albania, where Nassi was born and spent his first six years. They had three children.
In 1918 Nassi joined the U.S. Army, where he continued his musical activity by leading military bands. Discharged as a naturalized citizen in 1920, Nassi took a remobilized Vatra Band to Albania in order to support the Albanian Independence movement. Albania had gained independence from Turkey in 1912, the last European nation to be freed from Ottoman Turkish control. However, attempts were under way by Greece and Italy to partition and annex Albania. At considerable risk, the Vatra Band helped sustain national morale. Nassi's songs, especially "Vlora Vlora", celebrating defense of a town against the Italian army, became popular throughout the country.
After hostilities ended, Nassi and the Vatra Band toured all the major towns in Albania. Because of Albania's long Turkish rule, the people had no exposure to Western music. Nassi introduced many Albanians to a variety of Western musical genre including Wagner and Handel's Messiah (parts of which he translated to Albanian). He can thus be regarded as the father of introduction of Western music to his native land. During the six years they spent in Albania, Nassi and his wife organized Albania's school music system and organized bands and choral societies. He composed a mass, two rhapsodies, and two operettas, the scores to which were not available in 1999, a time when communication with post-Communist Albanian society was still limited.
In 1924, Yugoslav-assisted forces of Ahmet Zogu seized power from the democratically-oriented government led by Bishop Fan S. Noli. By 1926 Nassi became disillusioned with Zoglu's increasingly autocratic tendencies (he took the title, King Zog, in 1928). Nassi returned to the United States and reassumed musical activity in the Albanian Orthodox Churches in Massachusetts.
In 1929 Nassi and family moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, first to Chatham, and then to Orleans, where he remained until his death. Nassi and his wife built and supervised virtually the entire musical education system for the Lower Cape, encompassing the towns of Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, Chatham, Eastham, Harwich, and Orleans. Nassi founded many ensembles, including the Cape Cod Philharmonic Orchestra, the forerunner to the present Cape Cod Symphony. Nassi also established a publishing concern in Orleans, which issued many of Nassi's original compositions and arrangements of Albanian folk songs.
Since the fall of the Communist government of Albania, an emigre Albanian musician, Eno Koco, has offered supplementary notes on Nassi's song compositions and life in Albania on a web site at the University of Leeds (http://www.leeds.ac.uk/music/eno_koco/korcare3.html)
Thomas Nassi was one of the most remarkable and resourceful music educators in the 20th Century. He served as a musical pioneer in both Albania and the United States. Owing to political events of the 20th Century, he has been overlong in the shadows and deserves wider recognition and full biographical study.
- American National Biography, Oxford University Press, p. 241-242, by Frank T. Manheim (1999).