Willard Jenkins May 07, 2014
At the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in February, one couldn't help but notice the striking new grand piano on the main stage, emblazoned with the name SHADD. When the many accomplished pianists that weekend sat down to strike those keys, it was equally easy to spot their delight in the instrument.
That piano was the product of a trailblazer in his field. The Shadd in question is jazz drummer Warren Shadd, the first African-American piano manufacturer. That makes him the first large-scale commercial African-American instrument manufacturer, period.
For Shadd, piano making is part of his birthright. His grandparents were musicians: His grandmother was a ragtime pianist in the South in the '30s, and his grandfather invented (and performed on) a collapsible drum set. (He never patented it, a lesson his grandson learned.) Shadd's father was himself a piano technician, restorer, builder and performer — as well as a trombonist. And Shadd's aunt was the NEA Jazz Master pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn. A child prodigy, young Warren made his own concert debut at age 4.
Shadd Pianos are now in churches and concert venues across the U.S. — including the set of American Idol, where house keyboardist Wayne Linsey will play it on Wednesday night's episode. On a recent visit to Warren Shadd's home in a suburb of Washington, D.C. — a home that doubles as the Shadd Piano showroom — he spoke about his life and work.
Willard Jenkins: What sparked your original interest in pianos?
My father was the exclusive piano technician for the Howard Theatre, so I would go down there with him four times a week and see James Brown, Count Basie, [Duke] Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers ... rehearsing. I'd see this all day long, every day. From the time I woke up, there were band rehearsals. Shirley Horn rehearsing in my basement with Billy Hart and Marshall Hawkins ... We had pianos everywhere in my house, from the garage to the basement, sometimes even one of the upright pianos sitting in the kitchen, [Laughs.] And musicians would come over to our house after the gig and play all night: Dude Brown, Bernard Sweetney, Steve Novosel, Roberta Flack ...
My father would have me do little repairs on the piano. When he went on these piano [repair] jobs, he would take me with him to see what the whole thing was about ... and I would never want to go. I just wanted to stay home and play the drums; just wanted to be Warren Shadd the drummer. Except when he said he was going to the Howard Theatre — I was in the car before he got there! I wanted to see all these cats rehearse, see the show ... I met Grady Tate when I was about 6 years old, playing with Jimmy Smith, then went full circle and played with Jimmy Smith myself.
As I progressed and learned more about piano technology, I never aspired to; I just knew how to do it. I would say, 'Piano is what I know, drums is who I am.' As I went out there and toured with different acts, did a bunch of Broadway shows and got a little tired of the road, I learned how to tune, rebuild and restore pianos. I would take these pianos down to the nuts and bolts and build them back up just for fun, just for a hobby. I would take whole grand or upright pianos apart, build them back up with everything refinished — new strings, new soundboard, new keys, new ivories — for fun. And then my father would sell the piano. [Laughs.] I was about 12, 13 when I started doing this.
The record player was always going, from Sonny Stitt's Low Flame album, to Count Basie, to Buddy Rich, to Miles, to Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the James Gang, Iron Butterfly — I had a real potpourri and understanding of all genres of music. While I was doing this piano thing just for the heck of it, I was also performing with a bunch of folks. After I got through high school, I went to Howard University and was in the big band with Wallace Roney, Geri Allen, Gary Thomas, Noble Jolley Sr., Carroll Dashiell and Paul Carr.
When my father passed in 1993, I took over the piano business full tilt, because he had all of these clients for tuning, rebuilding and restoring. He pretty much had Washington, D.C., totally sewn up with all the church pianos. So when I took it over, I already had a client base — it wasn't like I had to start over fresh. We had all these contracts with churches. Coming in as the second generation of this business was phenomenal for me. Secure from being a musician on tour, it was a built-in job.
As the industry changed a bit, I found that rebuilding pianos was not so much what I really wanted to do financially. I would take these pianos and beautifully restore them ... and somebody would say 'OK, I'll give you $600 for it...' [Laughs.] I'm like, 'Dude, even the new strings I put on this cost four times that much!' So I kind of migrated out of that restoration business into doing tunings and repair work.
I would also exchange parts. I'd take a soundboard out of a Steinway and put it in a Baldwin to see what kind of reaction it would give, understanding the engineering, understanding which side vibrates the most. I'd exchange strings, put on heavier strings, lighter strings, to achieve a certain type of sound. Being a musician, I have an advantage of understanding what musicians want and what they want to hear. If I can compare here — Mr. Steinway doesn't play piano, Yamaha no, Kawai no, Bosendorfer no, Fazioli a little bit ... They are engineers and businessmen; I'm a musician and an engineer and businessman. I have somewhat of a musical advantage. What I'm crafting is a musical instrument and all those different components that go into that, especially the musical parts.