It was 1963, but the memory is clear. Tom Schnabel, now 39 and host of KCRW'S "Morning Becomes Eclectic," was in Palisades High School, just hanging out with his surfing buddies.

"We had a surf club called Chickens of the Sea. I was in a friend's car listening to the radio and I heard this John Coltrane record called 'Impressions.' I had never heard anything like it in my life. It was such a release to hear music like that. It was very mysterious and strange. I just sort of shut my eyes and I was someplace else."

For Schnabel, who says he was just an "OK student," this was a connection he really needed. "There was nothing intellectual about it," he says. "It was something I just felt."

The feeling hasn't gone away. "I'm very emotionally tied to music," he says. Schnabel seems to live his life on a musical time line. Events, places, people all relate to music--what he was hearing at the time, where he was hearing it, who he was hearing it with.

Schnabel may still look like the surfer/lifeguard he once was, but it is a rare surfer who could wax poetic about Albinoni's Adagio. The 17th-Century piece is one of his favorites: "Powerful, gorgeous, summing up all the hopes and aspirations and deep feelings in life." Only when he talks about music does Schnabel's sometimes gruff exterior soften to reveal passion bubbling beneath.

"I always have music in the back of my mind," he says. "There is so much good music that no one's ever heard of. My ambition is to get every good record in the world--whether it's from Japan or Italy or France or L.A.--into the station."

And, of course, on the air. The man has made some definite progress since he was named music director of KCRW (at 89.9 FM) in 1979. If "Morning Becomes Eclectic" has never been called the National Geographic of music, it's not because it couldn't be.

A partial rundown of a recent show includes selections from Zoot Sims, Tom Waits, the Jabula Home Defenders, (a South African Zulu worker chorus), and readings by Jack Kerouac. A regular feature of the show is live interviews of musicians or those in the world of music, who talk about their work while Schnabel chooses, or asks them to choose, selections for listeners to hear.

Such unusual programming has earned KCRW, which broadcasts "Morning Becomes Eclectic" weekdays 9 a.m to noon from Santa Monica College, a 1986 New Music Award as "the best non-commercial college radio station for music."

The man who started at KCRW in 1977 as a volunteer jazz-show deejay--from 1 to 6 a.m.--has come a long way. His broad musical perspective gives the show its special character. Schnabel finds the common denominator in the oddest combinations, adding often-obscure tidbits about the era, the recording, the pressing, the label or the relationship between the artist and his sidemen. The mix doesn't always work for everyone. "If you don't like it, wait five minutes," suggests KCRW General Manager Ruth Hirschman. "You don't know what's going to come next." You're not the only one--and Schnabel is the first to admit it.

"If you do everything ahead of time," he says in the control booth, "you're sort of putting the cart before the horse. You sort of have a structure but sometimes you have ideas while you're listening to the music. It's not anything logical and it might be a completely different type of music, but it'll have a great segue and you would never have thought of it when you're thinking about the music as opposed to actually listening to it."

Ten minutes to 9 one recent morning, Schnabel still hadn't arrived for work. "Oh, he'll be flying by this office just about 9," says a fellow worker nonchalantly.

Sure enough, with just minutes left before 9 a.m. air time, Schnabel appeared and headed for the booth. "Don't tell anyone I get here so late," he jokes.

It's amazing he can move at all: He lugs at least 50 LPs, along with assorted compact discs and cassettes.

In preparation for his show, whose title sometimes seems an understatement, Schnabel often totes albums from house to studio and back again. (His own collection numbers about 5,000, and KCRW's about 20,000.)

"Sometimes I carry the records around for days until I get the right time to play them," he explains.

Settling in, Schnabel cues up a set and then dashes off to the record library next door in search of an early jazz number called "No Romance Without Finance." He can't find it, but settles for a Louis Jordan cut, "Greenback Dollar Bill." He had started off the jazz sequence with Bobby McFerrin, went to Wardell Gray's instrumental version of "Twisted" ("He sure can play that saxophone. He's smoooooth!"), then cued up Annie Ross singing her version of "Twisted."

As soon as one cut is spinning, Schnabel runs out to the library again, zooms over to the turntable, stopping at the mike for an intro. Working with the precision of a surgical team, Schnabel and his assistant, Ariana Morgenstern, toss albums back and forth with haphazard rhythm. So it goes until suddenly it's noon.

Records and album jackets cover the floor and shelves. Schnabel has been on the run throughout the three-hour show. "I don't get a chance to listen to the show--other people get a chance to do that."

"Tom is so focused on what he's doing," says Hirschman, "that he loses sight of what's going on around him--sort of like an absent-minded professor."

She recalls how, on the second day of live testimony from Washington's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings, Schnabel was concerned that Secretary of State George Shultz's testimony would jeopardize his show's 9 a.m. start. "He wanted to know whether we would preempt the secretary's testimony so he could play Steve Reich. I said it wasn't a matter of discussion," she says with a laugh.

"But I wouldn't want a music director to be anything otherwise. I can't tell you how rare it is to find someone with his mastery of different musical schools and the aesthetic integrity to mix them with the kind of expertise and professionalism that Tom brings to the show."

As hard as Schnabel's taste might be to classify, his appreciation for music--in all its myriad forms--is easy to read.

You hear it when he introduces a recording of bird songs: "We need more bird songs in this town."

You hear it when he talks about how he perceives the world: "I'm very sensitive to noise, especially unwanted noise. But some noises are so great, like the moment you realize it's raining outside and you hear that little hissing."

For Schnabel, music is a purifying experience.

"It is very powerful, very unusual. Music is an abstract, mystical substance. I really want to move people the same way I'm moved. It can make a difference in your life."

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