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Thomas Zoells launches a world of sound on South Michigan Avenue

Howard Reich

10:55 AM EST, November 26, 2013

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As Chicago singer-pianist Yoko Noge cries out a bluesy lament, her fingers barrel across the keyboard – and thousands listen in on WDCB 90.9 FM.

But on this afternoon, Noge isn't performing in one of the rowdy bars where she usually works, and she isn't playing a rickety instrument of the sort that jazz pianists typically encounter in clubs across America.

Instead, Noge finds herself digging into a piano worth six figures and working a room that feels more like a sanctuary than a jazz den, the hushed audience leaning in to savor every note.

"The sound is kind of gorgeous," she says immediately after the performance in an acoustically sumptuous room. "It has a classic kind of feel to it."

Which is precisely what Thomas Zoells – one of the city's most passionate piano advocates – had in mind when he conceived the new PianoForte Studios at 1335 S. Michigan Ave. Stretching 11,700 square feet across three stories, the building has been fashioned as a kind of shrine to the piano, albeit one designed to rumble continuously with the sounds of jazz, classical, blues, boogie and just about anything else that 88 keys can express.

Yes, it's true that Zoells sells pianos – the first floor is a showroom for the high-end Faziolis (and other brands) that keep the operation afloat. But during the past nine years that PianoForte was ensconced in the Fine Arts Building, at 410 S. Michigan Ave., Zoells turned his business into a nexus for performances by jazz masters such as Patricia Barber and MacArthur Fellowship winner Reginald Robinson and classical virtuosos such as Ursula Oppens and subsequent MacArthur recipient Jeremy Denk.

Zoells' new home more than doubles the 4,500 square feet he had at the Fine Arts Building, with all the extra space going to everything but the showroom: the recital hall featuring Noge's WDCB broadcast, plus three piano studios, on the second floor; and an expansive rehearsal room on the third. The latest broadcast and recording equipment is up and running throughout the building; video streaming will come online next.

But isn't all of this really just a way to get people to come in and buy expensive pianos?

"I wish it were so, that the concerts helped the piano business," says Zoells, who was born in Switzerland, developed an obsession with the piano in childhood and never has grown out of it.

"I could say with a completely straight face (that) until quite recently I have never sold a Fazioli because of someone who came for a concert. The Fazioli buyers I had all (came) from left field. I never could have contacted them. They never knew I had concerts.

"The people who come to concerts, they already have pianos. It's young families who are just starting (out) who are buying pianos, and they are not going to come to concerts."

In effect, then, Zoells has hit on an unusual business model for stoking interest in the piano in Chicago: a for-profit business that sells instruments and underwrites the not-for-profit PianoForte Foundation that presents concerts, broadcasts, lectures, film screenings and everything else related to the instrument.

Zoells now can stir all this activity in a venue unlike anything in Chicago, for he has transformed a nearly empty, long-vacant building on what used to be Motor Row into a technologically sophisticated, multi-use venue devoted to the object of his fascination.

But even before Zoells opened the new space a few weeks ago, he had won admiration from some of the city's leading pianists.

"The thing that separates him is (that) he's not just a guy with a store," says Anthony Molinaro, a distinguished jazz and classical pianist who won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in 1997 and teaches at Loyola University Chicago.

"He's a connoisseur, he loves the music, he knows the music, he knows the musicians," adds Molinaro. "The fact that the extension of his business is to put on all of these concerts – it's just incredible. And now going from the Fine Arts Building to his own space, it's just a really, really exciting thing. It's a real gem for the city."

Performances and broadcasts are only a part of what's happening on the top two floors of Zoells' piano emporium. He also rents out the piano studios for teachers who want to give lessons and to anyone who needs a place to practice. His technology serves students who want to cut audition demos and professionals making albums. And he will continue to present the annual "Schubertiade" to celebrate of the music of Franz Schubert and organize the biennial Chicago Amateur Piano Competition, which will take place next year at Roosevelt University.

So how did Mr. Piano get wrapped up in all this?

"In my last year of high school, I was trying to figure out how to get into music without being a musician," says Zoells, who realized early on that he wasn't going to make his living playing the instrument.

"I knew that starting (lessons) at 10 years of age was late for going professional," he explains in a follow-up email. "I also was very intent on enjoying my piano experience rather than setting competitive goals for myself."

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."

No doubt.

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.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich