This past April, I attended a tribute event at the University of The District of Columbia's Jazz Studies Program in Washington, DC, in honor of NEA Jazz Master pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn. The evening was a celebration of the late jazz legend's life and work. In the audience, city's distinguished jazz aficionados, musicians and educators created a great vibe. Moderated by DC's own jazz radio producer Rusty Hassan, the event's speakers were: Horn's daughter, Rainy Smith - jazz vocalist/educator Jessica Boykin-Settles and, an audience favorite with his colorful personality, Horn's nephew, drummer/piano engineer, Warren Shadd.
Guest speakers' personal stories along with Horn's music were the highlights of the evening. The star of the event was undoubtedly Warren Shadd, whose fascinating stories bursted the audience into constant laughter and awe. From his times a drummer in his aunt's band, to the countless anecdotes... the stories were all well received by the attendees.
Following the event, I had a chance to chat with Shadd and we immediately hit it off. I did not know much about him and was mush interested in doing an interview with this "man of music" and you'll now read, also a wunderkind of piano engineering.
The next weekend Shadd kindly invited me to a gathering at his place, where I had the opportunity to learn more about him and his work.
JazzMag From what I understand, you come from a historical family of music...
Shadd Yes, pretty much. Just about every major member of our family. My grandmother, Marie Shadd, was a well-known ragtime and stride pianiste in the 30s, put together orchestras in the South. Also, my grandfather was the inventor of "collapsible drum set". My father James Shadd was a trombonist as well as a pianist. He formed bands, played with the great musicians of his time. He was also a respected piano tuner and technician for clubs and concert halls. You already know about my other relative; my aunt, legendary Shirley Horn.
JazzMag Sounds like with all this music around you, it was a liberal and fun childhood...
Shadd Truly. I grew in very democratic household. Free and peaceful. My folks were always supportive of me. I was able to impress them with my ability to hear everything... they believed I was perfect pitch. Guess what happened then? At a very early age I found myself inside music. Of all instruments, what would a 3-4 year old would jump onto!? Drums, of course!
JazzMag Please do not tell me you started playing drums at age 4!?
Shadd Even worse! At age 4 I even did a concert. The rest came naturally. My school years, and so on. Throughout my educational years, I played in bands and orchestras, both as an amateur and mostly, as a professional drummer.
JazzMag Fascinating times. I'm curious about the bands and musicians you accompanied in those days.
Shadd I was also able to continue my higher education and keep a job as working drummer. Was not easy, but I managed to make it happen. The list of musicians and bands is pretty long. To name a few; Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Dizzy Gilespie, Slide Hampton, Mark Murphy, Phil Woods, James Moody, Kenny Burrell, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, Jimmy Smith, Joe Williams, Jon Hendricks, Milt Jackson... and of course, the great Shirley Horn. I played the drums for orchestras in several Presidential Inaugurations and White House events in the Reagan, Clinton and Bush years. Also was the musical director for Broadway musicals and Kennedy Center productions.
JazzMag This is a very respectable list of names. You were a sough-after musician.
Shadd I've played countless gigs for many years. Also in those days, I was involved with my father's work as a piano technician. Was becoming very savvy and experienced over time. Interestingly, my name in that field was surpassing my name as a drummer. To be honest, from a very young age I was always with my dad when he serviced the most famous pianos around town. He was the official piano technician for the famous Howard Theatre. I used tag along with to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Blakey orchestras during their sound-checks. Magical moments. I asked and learned about the pianos, from the master himself, my dad, righ on the job. For years, I was in the very center of tuning, repair and servicing of the best pianos.
After my father's passing, all his clients needed their services to continue and I took over. Continued his legacy with great pride and unmatched quality. I expanded his list of clients also. Again, to name a few; Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin, Stanley Clarke, Roberta Flack, Wynton Marsalis, David Sanborn, Al Jarreau, Joe Sample, Smokey Robinson, Diane Schuur, McCoy Tyner, Patti Austin, George Duke, Terence Blanchard, Quincy Jones, Dave Brubeck, John Scofield, Gladys Knight, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Abbey Lincoln, George Benson, Nancy Wilson, Wayne Shorter, ABD Baskani William Jefferson Clinton, The Kennedy Center, The Library Of Congress, The Pentagon, Ronald Reagan Building, Ford’s Theater, Lincoln Theater, National Theater, Warner Theater, Duke Ellington School of Arts, Blues Alley Jazz Club... and my aunt Shirley Horn’s pianos.
JazzMag ...and "SHADD Pianos" brand is born.
Shadd Yes. Based on my vast experience, knowledge and expertise in the field of piano engineering, I founded SHADD PIANOS. The first piano built by an African-American, something that I'm most proud of. We produce our special order pianos with an artist sensitivity and a scientist's accuracy. “This is the best piano in the world." This statement was not made by us, but by the people who played our fine instruments.
JazzMag Very bold statement, I must say. Still, it must be a very competitive platform to gain respect for your brand among all the known names… (Steinway, Fazioli, Yamaha, Schimmel, Bosendorfer, Steingraeber, Stuart, Shigeru Kawai, etc.)
Shadd You're absolutely correct. The world market for piano brands is very competitive. The names you just mentioned are so strong with their history and marketing reach, making them the leaders in brand presence and advertising power. In our world, promotional budgets play a huge role in getting one's brand out in front of the audiences. That is our reality - not just for pianos, but for any product. Though, despite being a young brand and having modest marketing budgets, we were able to create a solid base and following in the past 13 years, I must say.
JazzMag Perhaps I should leave the "perfection statement" of your instruments to the democratic pianists for them to judge. In fact, this could also be a subject for a "Blindfold Test". A Fazioli, a Steinway and a Shadd, in the same room... There have been similar comparison tests in the past, specifically performed on product engineering.
Shadd I love the Blindfold Test idea! You can tell from my tone, how confident I am. We're totally up to any challenge since we cannot hide behind a colossal marketing budget. All we have to prove is the quality of our first-class instrument.
JazzMag Lastly, our readers would be interested in hearing about the latest SHADD news, along with all the recent brand exposures.
Shadd For the past 10 years, we've been moving forward with confidence and an upward momentum. Since our first order, which was commissioned by NYC’s historical Langham Place Hotel, we received tremendous interest from various audiences. World famous musicians and productions lined up to lease our pianos. For instance, The American Idol singing competition house orchestra performs with a Shadd, our Concert Grand. We are also approached by the corporate world with special orders. The Fox TV series "Empire" showcases our pianos in their latest episodes. Also another exciting development; we signed with Rolls Royce to become an affiliate luxury brand to them. Last but not least, the Vatican commissioned us with a special order; a concert grand, for their main event hall. We're in production and shipping soon.
JazzMag Seems like they favored a Shadd over a Fazioli, that is literally next door to them... go figure. I'd say, keep watching Shadd.