The expression “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is as clichéd as any in the American English language, but in the case of Warren Shadd, you’d be hard pressed to find a more appropriate idiom. To say he was born into a musical family is frankly an understatement. For starters, Warren’s aunt is NEA Jazz Master Shirley Horn, a pianist and vocalist. “My grandmother was a ragtime pianist in the south in the ‘30s… Her husband, Gilbert Shadd played drums,” says Warren. His grandfather not only played the drums, but he’s touted as the inventor of the collapsible drum set (though he never attained a patent for that creation, something Warren kept in mind with his own business ventures). Warren’s father was a drummer, pianist, and trombonist who played in a big band during World War II alongside Frank Wess, a noted jazz saxophonist and flutist. But Warren’s father was also a piano technician with an extensive client base, including the Howard Theatre, where Warren was exposed to the likes of Count Basie, James Brown, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, among others.
Shadd absorbed this family affinity for music like a sponge, taking bits and pieces of different musical influences from every family member. Seeing as Warren’s house was filled with pianos, from the garage to the basement, and “sometimes even one of the upright pianos sitting in the kitchen,” it’s no wonder he was drawn to the instrument. Shadd became something of a Dr. Frankenstein, taking apart pianos and putting them back together, trading this piece for that piece, and so on. “I learned so much in the household with the master technician, my father,” he comments. “He played gigs and he worked on pianos around the clock. You know I saw this and I got involved in it and as a kid I just built up pianos, rebuilt them and restored them as a hobby as a young teenager… I pretty much did a lot of experimenting with different parts on the pianos and exchanging parts from one soundboard to putting another soundboard in another piano just to see how they would sound so, and of course this was pre-Youtube and recording, so I had to actually retain what the piano sounded like previously… I really didn’t use that skill ‘til much later.”
Warren started off small with a made-to-order business model. “You can produce so many different models, from an upright to a baby grand to a concert grand, but what I did was I surveyed,” he says.” I had zero investors, so someone said ‘I need a piano,’ and I said ‘okay,’ took all of the profit margins and then some money and built that first piano. That was the beginning of ‘give me the money, and then I’ll build the piano.’ So it was an extremely trusting exchange initially.” If you’re ever in Manhattan, stop by 400 Fifth Avenue, the Langham Place Hotel – constructed in 2010 as the Sentai Fifth Avenue. It’s not only one of the tallest buildings in New York City, but it houses the first SHADD Piano. “From that point people would say ‘that’s a great piano; how can I get one of these?’ We’ve never had to deliver any pianos to a conventional retail store,” says Shadd. “We don’t have any overhead expenses to that degree, in terms of a show room, in terms of employees… we don’t have any of those issues, so if someone submits the payment, we send out the piano.” Warren attributes much of his success to this initial business model. “Doing made-to-order we knew exactly what was popular and what [the consumer] wanted. The actual models that we have are always rented always sold because we tested in terms of made-to-order. We have two sizes of uprights, we have a 49” and a 50”. We have a 5’10” baby grand, and we have a 7’2” concert grand, and we have a 9’3” concert grand. We haven’t had any requests for can we get a 6’4”, can we get a 6’11”, can we get a 5’4” baby grand? We haven’t had to really make any pianos outside of the ones we showcase all the time.”
A business can’t rely on quality alone – especially when you don’t invest in showrooms – but Warren believes his pianos have a little something special that others don’t. “My secret sauce if you will in the piano allows the sound to actually travel down to the pianist, that’s something that’s exclusive to my [acoustic] pianos, that the sound actually travels to the pianist as opposed to the sound as it normally does with a piano it travels straight up into the air,” says Warren. He also believes that his ear not just as a technician, but as a musician, comes in handy. “I’m mentally still in the mix of playing music,” he says, “but I tell you that actually really helps in terms of developing the sound and playability of the piano because I know so much about the performance part of piano playing, and the way it should sound, and the way it mixes with the band. I’m not only concentrating on the piano, but how the piano sounds with a band, with an orchestra, in a symphonic environment, in a gospel environment, in a latin environment, how it sounds so that in some instances it cuts through, but not to the point where it’s so harsh or bright that it’s metallic. All those particular ingredients I put into the piano so that it’s the best of all genre worlds, and it just fits right like a good shoe.”
Some of those pianos have gone on to find fairly impressive homes, aside from the aforementioned first piano in the Langham Place Hotel. If you watched American Idol last season and ever happened to take a look at the concert grand piano being played, you’ve seen a SHADD piano. But presently, Warren has taken on an international client of note. “Now we’re building a piano for the Vatican,” says Warren, “to be in the chapel next to the Sistine Chapel, [that] is just over the top. I mean who does that? Are you kidding? When we received that letter that they were interested in our piano… I mean, this piano is going to be provided for choruses, and some of the best choruses in the world will be using it daily for rehearsals and for the Sistine Chapel choir and special celebrations with the Pope, are you kidding? It’s not there for one program or two programs; it’s there in perpetuity. Regardless of what religion you are or what ever you may think of it that’s just way over the top, that’s a big, big accomplishment, and they (The Vatican) really think so highly of my pianos and my history. They said they were honored to receive my piano, can you believe that?”
When Shadd isn’t working on that Vatican piano, he’s creating a much more inclusive piano for all musicians. “Our interactive pianos allow autistic and deaf people to flourish,” he says. “We were published in a music and medicine journal last year based upon a new assistive ground-breaking technology that allows the hard of hearing to be able to feel vibrations and detect pitches through the various speakers and audio and how they’re set toward the pianist, under the piano, in the actual bench surround sound with subwoofer in the bench and interactive technology with various cams and monitors, so it’s totally interactive. I see you, you see me. For pianists who are hard of seeing, we have audio that allows blind/hard of seeing pianists to hear their audio lessons. The deaf can also view on one of the screens sign language as well.” Shadd is currently working on building brand new versions of these pianos, as well as keyboards, and you can bet he has the patent for this technology.
Warren Shadd doesn’t think of himself as the first African-American piano manufacturer. “When I set out to do this, I wanted to accomplish an idea,” he comments. “It was never about being the first of anything; it just happened to be. It was never something I was running with a banner saying ‘hey if I do this I’m gonna be the first.’ It was astonishing to me to be the first. The piano is unlike any other instrument to make, it’s a big deal to manufacture a piano, let alone to manufacture a piano that somebody actually likes. You can build anything, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to like it. To do this, to set out to make the best pianos in the world, that’s the goal. Not to be the first African American piano manufacturer. That just happens to be part of the fabric of what we did in terms of history, but the goal is to make the best pianos in the world, and the best keyboards in the world, and to do something good with it.”
However, that isn’t to say that Shadd ignores the significance of his accomplishments. “I’m not oblivious to what it means historically,” he comments. “I’m aware that people are proud, are supportive of my accomplishments, and I certainly do appreciate all those who support what I’ve done.” Success tends to breed jealousy from outside sources and Warren has found “a new set of haters” emerge, though he’s found a rather positive way to deal with that negativity. “We welcome haters in abundance,” he says, laughing. “If you’re not doing something great, they have nothing to hate on. We say ‘bring on all the haters, please haters come along!’ because that means we’re really doing something great. Though we have far more supporters than haters. And that’s equal opportunity hate, but we’ve done so many great things that [the hate] slides right off like Teflon. It doesn’t even effect us.”
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