His world, within reach

HARMONIOUS LIVING: Schnabel, host of KCRW’s “Café L.A.,” soaks up the melodies in the listening room of his spacious two-story house. “This house was built around my passion,” he says.
HARMONIOUS LIVING: Schnabel, host of KCRW’s “Café L.A.,” soaks up the melodies in the listening room of his spacious two-story house. “This house was built around my passion,” he says.
(Gary Friedman / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

OBSESSIONS come in degrees. If you’re lucky, whatever you love will prove deep enough to hold your interest all of your life. If you’re determined, you’ll find a way to make a living in the pursuit of it so that there is no troublesome boundary between vocation and avocation.

It doesn’t have to stop there. One day you may feel the need to build a house to hold your passions. Tom Schnabel’s single-minded love of the world’s music has taken him just that far.

To reach the root of the story, we wind the clock back half a century. There was a song at the beginning, naturally. It was a 78 rpm vinyl record with a catchy tune for a second-grader, his twin sister and his older brother living in Santa Monica Canyon. When mom and dad stepped out, the record was slapped down on the Magnavox turntable:

Tutti Frutti, all over rootie,

Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop bam boom!

At full volume, Little Richard’s wailing hit from the 1950s sent the children running wild in what was then called the rumpus room. By whatever magic these things happen, the synapses in young Tom’s formative mind clamped down on his destiny. From there, it was a natural stair step: At 15, John Coltrane opened the door on modern jazz, and, my, what an awakening. “I didn’t know music could make you feel that way,” Schnabel recalls. “It was incredible. It was trance music.”

Today, Schnabel is a familiar personality to listeners of KCRW-FM (89.9). He was the station’s music director for 11 years, and now produces and hosts the station’s Sunday two-hour “Café L.A.” program of world music. He also is world music program director for the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a music consultant to Hollywood and to the advertising industry, a recorded music producer for airlines as well as a teacher and writer.

All of which eventually grew into a problem, or a challenge, if you prefer.

Pursuing the planet’s music over the decades inevitably means collecting a lot of it. A staggering volume of recordings, in fact. And that barely says enough.

Schnabel found himself smothered by the thing he loved.

“Overabundance,” he explains knowingly, “is the enemy of organization.”

Fittingly, a musical event brought about a solution. At a concert by the Brazilian guitarist Dori Caymmi in 1988, Schnabel met architect Bob Ramirez.

“Bob understands music; Bob understands architecture,” says Schnabel.

They plunged in, and within a few years, the two finished the design and oversaw the building of a 3,000-square-foot residential music sanctuary on a small lot in Venice. “This house was built around my passion,” Schnabel says, as if there could be any other conclusion.

First, the sound: Schnabel wanted to listen to music exactly as it’s heard in a club. Right up front in the center.

No acoustics consultant was needed. Working together, Schnabel and Ramirez went by the rule of thumb that has guided many club owners: big space, big speakers.

The result is a two-story Mediterranean/Moroccan-flavored “listening room” in place of a standard living room. Underneath a square of upstairs balconies, the sweet spot of the room faces an alcove with speakers as tall as Schnabel and cables as thick as garden hoses to feed them without distortion.

In the corner, a bank of amps glow with the soft orange of old-fashioned vacuum tubes. Familiar stereo components are supplemented by exotica, such as a belt-drive turntable and a washing machine for vinyl LPs. Distractions, like television, are shunted off to the bedroom.

“People these days don’t know what analog music sounds like unless they go to a club,” he explains. Or, perchance, if they are invited to spend an afternoon with Schnabel.

The second aim of Schnabel’s musical dream home was to contain his abundance.

Some people, of course, are going digital to tame their ever-expanding music collections. Schnabel checks himself so as not to be a snob in this matter. He’s for anything that brings music into one’s life, beginning with radio. The iPod, for instance, strikes him as “so cool. It’s just … " He pauses to pick his words.

“It’s the best idea that anybody could think of. I just feel I don’t need another medium. If I had become a lawyer like my brother, I’d get an iPod and a good dock. And that’s enough for most people. But I don’t know if I’m going to get one.”

As any audiophile will tell you, technology and progress are not equal partners in the realm of music. Vacuum tubes and analog recordings are still truer to the sound wave than digital. It’s the difference, Schnabel says, between hearing live music from the second row or from 100 feet away — critically important only if you deem it so.

Not long ago, a man like Schnabel would have been described as retro, maybe hip-retro, for holding on to a significant collection of vinyl favorites. Now, imagine, he calls himself “old school” for being equally in love with the compact discs that have accumulated around him in dizzying numbers.

And how many would that be? Don’t ask. Schnabel agreed to be interviewed, but not to stand by while someone spends tedious hours inventorying his recordings.

He doesn’t know the answer, except to say that by 2001, even his home couldn’t hold all his growing collection. So he bought the tear-down next door and built a 600-square-foot office and sound studio to handle the overflow.

By counting the CDs on just one shelf of this office and then multiplying by the number of floor-to-ceiling shelves, one can guess there are about 13,250. But that’s just the office. There are a larger number in the main house.

If you’re an obsessive on this scale and want to get anywhere with it, you better be orderly because you’re going to have to lay hands on that album by Cuba’s Celio Gonzalez from the party days before Castro, without hunting through Africa, Latin, classical, pop, zydeco, jazz and all the rest. Meanwhile, each record reminds you of something else you want to hear or broadcast, often several somethings that you don’t want to search for.

Schnabel devoted himself to the challenge, arranging his music by style, by continent, by nation, by artist, all of it alphabetized and tabbed library-style.

If this story seems to be winding up in predictable fashion, Schnabel offers a surprise.

Take off your shoes and step into the main house. Only the stereo hardware hints at the purpose of the dwelling. African sculpture is tastefully placed on flat surfaces. Midcentury Modernist furniture is arranged in sparse configuration. The ambience is uncluttered, spacious, and the mood calm. There are no framed concert posters, no signed memorabilia, no tribute plaques. The Hard Rock Cafe this is not.

And something is quite plainly missing. Unlike his studio, where CDs are shelved in the open, there’s no music on display here. Maybe 50 vinyl LPs lean against a wall — pulled out and ready just in case his visitor wants to hear some selections. But otherwise not a single recording is visible.

“I don’t want to see everything,” explains Schnabel, with a wave of his hand. “It’s overwhelming … I don’t want to be staring at that stuff.”

Rows of CDs sitting on shelves, with their splotches of color, remind him of those Post-Impressionist dot paintings called pointillism. To spare himself from enduring an endless “bad trip to a pointillist museum,” a downstairs alcove-hallway is lined with refrigerator-size cupboards to hold CDs behind cherry wood doors. On the second-floor balconies, more cabinets and chests. Only his vinyl is exposed, 33 feet of floor shelving visible on the one wall of the upstairs.

Eyes alone cannot comprehend Schnabel’s home, of course.

“Take a seat,” he says. He fingers through the LPs he selected. Pinching the cardboard case of one, the edge of a vinyl record drops into his palm. He inspects the surface for dust and then places it on the turntable. He has 20 cuts in mind to share, and more are coming to him — “so many; it’s me being a DJ,” he smiles.

The 1970s sounds of a George Adams jazz recording rise. Surround sound? Not a chance. In this listening room, Adams is as good as standing on stage just beyond arm’s reach, drilling you right between the eyes with his sax, a knife-sharp background shimmer of cymbals holding the beat.

“The drums,” Schnabel says, raising his voice to be heard. “That’s where you can really tell….” Surely, it was a moment like this when someone first thought to utter the old cliché about music filling the room. Walls, archways, windows, furniture, statuary and those cherry wood cabinets all recede from your consciousness.

On his couch, Tom Schnabel closes his eyes. His face relaxes. Just barely, his head nods to melody. At the musical home he created in Venice, he isn’t just listening. He’s feeling it.



Tuneful musings


Tom Schnabel fields queries about his vast recordings collection:

How many chances do you give a recording?

I look at album artwork for signs that something is even worth unwrapping. If there’s backlit permed hair or way too much makeup, I can usually tell if it’s not a good fit for KCRW or my taste. If things move forward from here I usually listen to the first 30 to 60 seconds of the first five or six tracks. There are two ways of listening: There’s auditioning product: listening to a pile of 20- to 40 CDs weekly with your finger on fast forward to scan tracks. It’s like people who read scripts for a living. You have to be efficient and careful when listening in bulk. Some CDs I know I’ll love (the artist, the label, etc). So I’ll take it into the big house and listen more closely on the bigger sound system. That’s listening music for pleasure — really savoring the experience, with all the pleasure that got me into music in the first place.

What would you carry out of a

burning building?

Tito Puente Dance Mania “Complicación” (RCA). One of the greatest CDs by one of the greatest bandleaders ever. Also, an RCA Living Stereo recording, whose recorded sound was a league ahead of other companies in the late ‘50s.

John Coltrane, “A Love Supreme” (Impulse). Miles Davis and Gil Evans, “Miles Ahead,” “Sketches of Spain,” “Porgy and Bess” (Columbia). Baden Powell Live at the Rio Jazz Club (Caju). Salif Keita “Moffou” (Universal). The amazing Malian singer captured in an acoustic setting.

What would you rush back into a

burning building to get?

Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, Bach, Bartok, and probably Tchaikovsky too. I would want to have some Indian classical music, say, some ragas from Ravi Shankar and/or Ali Akbar Khan. (I’d need to get some type of flame-resistant suit from the LAFD so I could get more CDs out.)

Valentine’s Day approaches: What’s the most romantic music in the world?

Brazilian music is second to none. Also boleros like “Dos Gardenias” as sung by the late Ibrahim Ferrer. I also love the Flamingos’ ‘50s classic “I Only Have Eyes For You.” The late Shirley Horn could really take you somewhere too.

One place you’ve never heard

music from



How do you keep music a

pleasure and not an unending


You can’t wear yourself out with music that has nothing to do with you and what your show is about. If you can balance the speed listening with new CDs that you get and love, then you come out fine.