Spotlight on Black History: Warren Shadd, Piano Manufacturer Extraordinaire

“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.”

Meet Warren Shadd, founder of the Bronx built Shadd Pianos, the first ever African American made piano manufacturing company, and the official piano of the Vatican. Shadd grew up in the jazz music culture of Washington, D.C. a jazz drummer himself. Jazz music and tinkering with pianos has been in Shadd’s family for over two generations, his grandparents were musicians and his father was a piano technician, restorer, and performer. In a recent interview with NPR, Shadd speaks candidly about his early exposure to the intricacies of piano inner workings saying:

“ …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.”

Shadd piano Bronx

As if starting the first ever African American-made piano company wasn’t impressive enough, Shadd has also designed the Shadd Interactive Piano, a piano to help students learn piano in non-traditional ways. Special features are uniquely designed to help visually-impaired learners read music by Braille, help hearing-loss students feel the sound through vibration frequencies synched to the bench they sit on, and even autistic learners can be taught without having to come into direct contact with teachers by a series of cameras built into the piano frame itself. These types of modifications not only welcome piano learning and playing to a broader spectrum of people but they also serve to desegregate the type of players often (and historically) associated with learning classical piano. Perhaps Shadd’s jazz upbringing helped him see the world in a more flexible light and contributed to his manufacturing a more versatile instrument. Either way, Maker’s Row is proud to spotlight a manufacturer who cleary takes pride in making an excellent product with the finest attention to detail and craftsmanship. You can see Shadd pianos on hit TV shows “Empire” and “American Idol.”

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Warren Shadd quotes from NPR. Photo (André Chung/for The Washington Post)