America's Only Black Piano-Maker Soldiers on Through Slights and Triumphs

 

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)

Warren Shadd, the world's only African-American piano manufacturer, shows off the harp he designed for his line of grand pianos.

No one gave me a million dollars,” Warren Shadd says from behind the nine-foot-three-inch concert grand piano he designed. “How do you do this with no money?”

A million dollars is certainly helpful when starting any business. But if you want to be the first African American to manufacture products as capital- and labor-intensive as a line of pianos and don’t have that kind of money, it helps to have the mind of both an engineer and an artist, creative talent, an indelible work ethic, and a musical pedigree inherited from a family that was an integral part of Washington, D.C.’s mid-century jazz culture. Not to mention connections in the music business and a great ability to generate buzz.

American popular music owes a lot—in some respects, nearly everything—to African Americans. So it may be surprising to learn that there are no other African-American piano manufacturers—surprising, of course, until one considers that the extraordinary amounts of capital necessary to start such a business were long denied to generations of African Americans. “As long as you’re singing and dancing, that’s your lane,” Shadd says. “You try to get over to the corporate side of it, things change.”

But Shadd has made it into the other lane: His pianos have been played, praised, and plugged by jazz pianists Cyrus Chestnut and Monty Alexander, and by gospel artist Richard Smallwood. Representative John Conyers featured one during the Congressional Black Caucus’s Jazz Issue Forum and Concert. (Conyers, a great booster of the musical form, introduced H.R. 57 in 1987, the resolution that designated jazz as a national treasure.) And one of Shadd’s concert grands was even used in the finals of American Idol last year, at the request of the TV show’s pianist. Just this month, his pianos were featured at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival.

Given that litany of successes, then, what ends up being more surprising than the fact of Shadd’s singular status as a piano manufacturer is the fact that it takes two hours into our conversation for me to register that Shadd has only been manufacturing his eponymous line of pianos for less than three years. The calculation occurs sometime between him saying that his first piano was built (at no profit) in 2012, and him telling me of his current goal to get one of his pianos into the Obama White House. “From a ‘first’ to a ‘first,’” Shadd says with a grin.

We’re in his pristine Maryland home in suburban Washington, D.C., in a room occupied by two sleekly lacquered grand pianos, with the brand name Shadd emblazoned on the side in big, gold block letters. The floor-length curtains are champagne-gold, and the wallpaper and painted floor are both a bright, shimmery gold. When I comment that he must love the color—in the driveway is a two-seat Chrysler Prowler roadster, also gold—he pauses before cracking up and clapping his hands together: “You know, I never noticed that!”

In another room, there’s a grand piano, a drum kit, and, in the corner, a Hammond B3 organ with a jazz-history pedigree. Next to the organ is an easel displaying a poster-sized photo of his aunt, jazz great Shirley Horn, who bequeathed the iconic instrument to him. Shadd comes from a family of musicians, and was himself a performer for decades before moving into the world of piano manufacturing. Seated at the piano, he demonstrates how well the bass strings resonate on the custom soundboard he designed. His boxy, gold watch the size of a small cabinet bounces around as his hands fly across the keys. It’s easy to forget that his primary instrument is actually the drums.

Shadd doesn't apologize for his talent when he discusses his drumming skills. He uses the phrase “child prodigy” more than once to describe himself, and as proof, there's a framed June 1964 Washington Daily News clipping hanging on the wall, with a picture of an eight-year-old Shadd sitting at a drum kit. The article, which describes all the family members—parents, grandparents, sister—whose musical talents influenced the young drummer, was a preview for the outdoor “Jazz in Concert” series that took place throughout the summer at what would become the site of the District of Columbia’s famed Watergate complex, for which ground had just been broken the year before.

But in the year that saw the introduction of the Civil Rights Act, such a praise-filled article about a young black musician generated its share of racist backlash, according to Shadd. He and his family received telephoned death threats, he says. “They would call my house and say, ‘We’re going to kill that little n***** boy if he plays this concert,’” Shadd says. “It was like a barrage.”

“It set a big uproar in the musicians’ union at the time,” he explains. “One side said, ‘He needs to play! He's a child prodigy!’ Another side was saying, ‘Yeah, but if something happens, then we go down the tubes.’”

Shadd ended up playing the concert, with his father, James, on piano, and Leon Robinson on bass, and the performance took place with no incident. But the story reminds him of another outdoor concert he played a few years later, where his mother stood on stage with him.

“She was packing,” he laughs, “gun in the pocketbook!” At nightfall, some audience members began throwing rocks, and one hit his mother in the chest. Shadd says he also remembers other times he received threats, but doesn't know how many. “I don't know if my parents tried to shield me from that,” he says.

Besides being a bandleader, and working a daytime government job, Shadd's father was a piano technician—one of the only African Americans in the piano technicians’ guild, whose members often subjected him to racist jokes, Shadd recounts. “My father would just stand there and laugh and grin because that was the only thing he could do,” he says. White members wouldn’t let him take the required courses with them, Shadd says, so his father had to complete his class requirements for his technician’s certificate via a correspondence course. Shadd begins laughing so hard at his father’s tenacity that he can’t talk for a few seconds, smacking the table in time with his breaths.

Shadd attributes his strong work ethic to his father. “Three o’clock in the morning, I'd hear him in the basement working on pianos,” Shadd says. “This was around the clock. If he did all that, then who am I to slack?”

It was from his father that Shadd learned how to fix, reassemble, and then later build pianos. “I would take them all apart, all the way down to nuts and bolts, and build them all back up. I got so good at it, my father started selling the [rebuilt] pianos. But I didn't really use that knowledge until far later, because I was trying to be Warren Shadd the drummer.”

As one of few African American piano technicians in the 1960s, Shadd's father had something of a monopoly servicing the instruments in African American homes, churches, and—most excitingly, for his son—the famous Howard Theatre. Shadd's eager, youthful face beams as he recounts all the artists he got to see rehearse or perform from the front row or, better yet, side stage. James Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Delfonics ... the list went on.

“Just so many people that were musical icons, especially in the black community at that time,” Shadd recalls. “That was the place to go see them, the Howard Theatre. I would be in there all day long.” He played at the theater's reopening in 1974 (it had closed within a couple years of the 1968 riots), and one of his pianos has been used for shows there after its 2012 renovation. 

But Shadd is perhaps most excited when he’s showing me the object of his patents: his interactive piano. It has touchscreens and cameras that can enable cross-continent lessons, or long-distance track recording—allowing a pianist to record in real time with an artist who is in a different location. The interactive Shadd piano has been used at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and Shadd envisions the piano being used both by professionals and by music therapists, especially for autistic children who might initially be uncomfortable with music. There’s even a subwoofer—a kind of speaker—in the bench that lets the player feel the music as well as hear it.

A similar mixture of traditional acoustic construction and new technology is featured in other Shadd pianos, such as the one used on American Idol. There is a MIDI box underneath the piano, and it’s possible to render the piano completely silent while the music is still transferred over the sound transmissions for live television. He invites me to play, and when I do and only complete silence greets me, he watches me expectantly. I muse out loud about how the hammers are not striking the strings, and finally say, “But how does it do that and still record?” Instead of answering me, he chuckles delightedly and bellows, “Amazing!” Eventually, I get him to explain that there are optical sensors that transfer the sound information to a module, which then transfers it over the television.

Shadd is full of stories, and is eager to tell them all, with a born storyteller’s flair for dramatic pauses, expressive eyes, and detailed dialogue. He routinely bursts into laughter describing his own experiences, from the funny—his summer job as a young teenager was playing drums behind burlesque dancers at clubs like the Pink Flamingo (“I was mesmerized!”)—to the frustrating, like when, he says, he met, one after the other, with six patent attorneys, all white, who were loathe to take on the project of drawing up the paperwork for patents on his pianos—including one, he says, who refused to believe he had created and drawn the designs himself, and one who said he “seemed articulate.” One attorney finally agreed to file his patent application, Shadd explains, on the condition that Shadd would tune the piano of the attorney's daughter as a favor.

But Shadd seems to take the challenges for all that they are—including, along with the slights, opportunities to learn, and to have good stories to tell.

Speaking of his unique status in the world of piano manufacture and design, Shadd says, “If I’m the first one, there’s a reason. There’s a higher calling to this. The little things that you win—they’re small wins, but they keep you going. There have been a whole lot of small little wins.”

I ask him what a big win is. A piano on a show like American Idol? No, that was a small win, he says.

Would a Shadd piano in the White House count as a big one? Shadd shakes his head. When it comes to winning large he’s thinking of the potential of his interactive piano, he says.

“Even though there’s some things that seem like they’re huge,” he says, sitting in a house full of grand pianos that bear his name, “for me, I’m still not at the finish line.”

 

 

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