So he studied business at the University of Geneva, found a "low paying job" working for a concert agency in Geneva in the mid-1980s and finally decided to leverage his business degree for a spot in the training program at the former Swiss Bank Corporation. The firm brought him to New York in 1989 and sent him to Chicago that year, Zoells taking his future wife on their first date to the Green Mill Jazz Club to hear tenor saxophonist giants Von Freeman and Edward Petersen. Thus a love story – among Zoells, his soon-to-be-wife and Chicago music – was born.
After a series of unfulfilling banking jobs in the U.S. and Europe, Zoells knew he needed to get back to music, and when he realized there were no Fazioli dealers in Chicago, his path was apparent.
Zoells opened his shop in the Fine Arts Building in May of 2004. He presented his first classical piano concert there a month later and his first jazz performance the following year, steadily picking up the tempo in both idioms ever since.
When Zoells speaks about the piano, it's obvious that he has found a way to realize his life's calling.
For him, sitting down to play the instrument "is a little bit like walking into a church in Italy," he says. "You walk in, and you just go, 'Oh my, how could anyone ever build something like this?' That experience is kind of what I get from the piano.
"The other thing about the piano that is cool is that I'm really not a good pianist, but it doesn't bother me. It's one of the few instruments that you can enjoy and not be very good at. You can choose your repertoire. Some (technically) very easy repertoire is very profound."
Zoells hastens to add that there was no way he could have pursued his passion in such an entrepreneurial way anywhere else but America.
"The minute I landed in New York, I knew this was the place," he says. "And I think a big part of it – and I feel more strongly about Chicago than New York that way – a big part of it is that I just felt immediate acceptance. There's no judgment. The fact that I was a foreigner didn't even enter the conversation.
"I could never have reinvented myself in Switzerland, not at all. It's too small, things are too established. You don't just walk in and say, 'I'm going to open a piano store and concert venue.' There's no demand for that. It just wouldn't happen."
It has happened here, on a rather large scale.
But now that Zoells has built it, will they come?
He expects it will take a few years to find out, but, at the very least, he's creating a unique institution that's a boon to anyone who reveres the culture of the piano.
Says pianist Molinaro, "We're lucky to have Thomas Zoells in Chicago."
For a schedule of events at PianoForte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Ave., phone 312-291-0291 or visit pianofortefoundation.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.