World’s First African-American Piano Maker
DISTRICT HEIGHTS, Md. — Warren Shadd has adorned the walls of his one-story home with several framed artifacts.
On one wall hangs photographs of his family—his grandmother, his father, and his mother— all playing musical instruments. Another wall displays a 1969 article from The Washington Daily News about him as a 13-year-old musical prodigy.
Of all the remembrances, however, particularly significant to him is a certificate from the District of Columbia Piano Technicians Guild awarded on May 1, 1967 to James H. Shadd, his father, a professional pianist and piano technician.
The certificate hangs as a reminder of the rich musical legacy from which he descends, Shadd said.
Shadd is a third generation musician, second generation piano technician and first generation piano manufacturer, as well as the first African American piano manufacturer in the world. It is what he was destined to do, he explained.
“I am the chosen one,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm. “Not only am I the first African-American piano manufacturer, but unfortunately, we don’t make any other musical instruments, even down to things like music stands or drumsticks or guitar strings or accessories. So, I’m kind of like the first and only.”
His company, SHADD Inc., is headquartered in the Bronx, New York, he said, but at his home in Maryland, he houses eight of his creations, including the acoustic concert grand piano that was played on American Idol last season and one that Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Richard Smallwood use to record on his upcoming album.
Smallwood, who once accompanied opera legend Leontyne Price at a White House Christmas celebration, had nothing but praise for Shadd’s pianos.
“First of all, for a pianist, it feels and sounds like every piano you’ve ever wanted to play,” he said, “your dream piano in terms of the highs, the lows, the mids, the harmonics. It’s just an incredible piece of work.
“Not only does it have wonderful sound, but it’s beautiful, just a gorgeous piece of furniture. I would play it every day.”
Producing world-class instruments wasn’t always Shadd’s dream. After withdrawing from Howard University when he got a record deal, he toured as a drummer with famous jazz artists like Sarah Vaughn, Jimmy Smith, Joe Williams, Lionel Hampton, and his aunt, Shirley Horn.
He also performed in the Broadway hit musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with singer Nell Carter and the original cast until Carter, who went on to television fame, decided she wanted to stop the show and tour privately.
“As a musician, you’re out of work immediately,” Shadd said, explaining the unpredictable nature of the industry. “Then you’re trying to catch onto the next [show.] Each time it becomes arduous, and you still have bills to pay.”
Shadd said he thought long and hard about how to sustain himself without relying on other people. He said he decided to work on pianos, which he learned to do in his parents’ basement when he was in junior high and high school.
“I took the resources that I had and made something happen out of those particular resources, which actually helped me later on when it came to formulating my ideas of what are the best parts in a piano to make it sound great,” he said.
After the death of his father in 1993, Shadd took over his father’s business, Shadd’s Piano Hospital Service. Shadd’s father had been the exclusive piano technician for Howard Theatre, Shadd said. So, he would go with his father to the theater while he tuned pianos for musicians such as James Brown, Count Basie, [Duke] Ellington, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and vocalists Pearl Bailey, Peggy Lee.
One day, Shadd was tuning a piano when his client gave him the idea for manufacturing pianos.
“Old Mr. Tucker started crying, so I turned around and asked, ‘Mr. Tucker, what’s going on?’” Shadd said. “Mr. Tucker said, ‘Shadd? See that piano?’ He points his finger right where the logo was on the piano. ‘That right there should say ‘Shadd’ because you’re the only one.’
“I was like, ‘Okay, Mr. Tucker! I got these ideas!’ I had written down some ideas about how to enhance the volume and the sound of acoustic pianos, So I went down and dusted these old pieces of paper that I wrote four or five years previously, and I started really tinkering around with the piano.”
That was the inception of SHADD Inc., he said. Thirteen years later, the company is 60 percent finished with a white acoustic concert grand piano that will go to the Vatican City, he said.
“There are certain things that I thought would make my brand super huge immediately,” Shadd said. “[The Vatican] seems untouchable. Unattainable. It’s so way and beyond up there.”
Aside from the Vatican, Shadd, whose pianos have been played by jazz pianist Monty Alexander and singers Gregory Porter and Harry Connick Jr. and a host of other famous jazz musicians, also has aspirations of building a piano for President Barack Obama.
In addition, the company has manufactured a hybrid piano with features like speakers on the front of the piano, a bench with surround sound speakers, screens to allow for interactive virtual teaching and learning, and many other innovative accessories.
“We tested for over a year with autistic, deaf, and blind children,” Shadd said. “This will be great assistive technology.”
Ree Rinn, a partially deaf pianist and teacher, expressed excitement when she was introduced to Shadd’s pianos.
Numerous ear infections in childhood left Rinn unable to detect high register sounds, and though she received a bachelor’s degree in music, Rinn said she was never able to hear the last 10 notes on the piano until she heard Shadd’s hybrid piano.
“I suddenly found myself nearly in tears when I realized I could hear piano notes I had never heard before,” she said. “This was astonishing to me and an immensely moving experience.”
Shadd recalled her reaction when she first heard the piano.
“She started screaming out, ‘I can hear it! I can hear it! I don’t know what this is!’” he said. “That might have been my greatest moment.”
SHADD Inc. is building more models of the interactive hybrid, he said, as well as a keyboard version of it, which he said he plans to ship around the world to children in impoverished communities and developing countries.
Shadd said that though he has received a great deal of recognition and though his last name does appear in large letters on both sides of his pianos, he says it’s more about paying homage to those who nurtured him to be the businessman he is today.
“I have so much respect for my family name,” he said. “I just continued that name, which is my name, with respect. It has a lot to do with paying homage to the blood, sweat and tears of my father. It was playing homage to all of the family, my grandmother, my grandfather…all the people that were super engaged in music.”