Music, My Dad, and Me

Written by

Tom Schnabel's father, Daniel Schnabel

My mind wandered down memory lane recently while I listened to Cal Tjader’s 1960 album Latino!. That album featured such notable musicians as Eddie Cano and his orchestra, sax great Chombo Silva, Paul Horn, Mongo SantamarÍa, Willie Bobo, and Vince Guaraldi. I love the amazing solos, arrangements, and the jam-session feel. It’s the type of hip music that might have been heard at a tiki lounge in Las Vegas, Shelly’s Manne Hole, or a swank Latin club. I was 13 when it was recorded, and I thought about my teenage years and getting deep into John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and other jazz.

The music also made me think of my larger-than-life dad, Daniel Schnabel, who would have been 49 in 1960. A brilliant and successful lawyer, my father represented famous clients like surf god Miki Dora, actor David Carradine, and the son of California sugar baron Adolph Spreckels. I remember my dad as a bespoke, classy but narcissistic, and unfortunately, emotionally distant parent. He wore Brioni shirts and suits, accessorized with fancy wrist watches, tie clips, and cuff links. I used to detail his supercars; they included Ferraris (Borrani wire wheels weren’t easy to clean), Maseratis, and Mercedes 300 SL’s. I inherited my love of classic cars from him.

In terms of musical tastes, however, we couldn’t have been more different. I once sat in his late 70’s Giallo-yellow Ferrari 308 GT, (think Magnum P.I. and Tom Selleck who drove a red 308), and found the radio tuned to KOST-FM, the MOR/easy-listening station. When I asked how he could listen to such dreck, he replied, “Ah, so relaxing.” I was appalled that my dad listened to this sonic soup. It would have been better to listen to the purr of the rear-engine V-8.

I often wondered how a man with such polish could have such execrable taste in music. Why didn’t he listen to Cal Tjader, Coltrane, or Miles? It wasn’t that my dad didn’t know music. He won a piano recital as a young man, and a rich dowager in the audience gave him a Chickering quarter grand that remained in the Schnabel household until my mother passed away. I would fetch my dad his scotch and sodas while he sat on the piano bench before dinner, hammering out some kitschy parlor tunes.

During my teens, I was kind of like the jazz-loving kid in Louis Malle’s 1971 movie Murmur of the Heart. (Malle loved jazz—his first film was l’Ascenseur Pour l’Échafaud with Miles Davis’s moody soundtrack.) I would hole up in my bedroom and listen to the coolest and latest jazz sides with my door closed. Listening to the latest releases upstairs alone in my room, I did sometime hear screams from down below in the Schnabel household to turn that !@#$% music off! This is how my love of jazz started—no thanks to my dad—and has only grown in all the years that followed. Too bad I never had the deep pockets to buy the cars I grew up with.