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Warren Shadd Overcomes Generations of Racial Adversity To Become America’s First Black Piano Manufacturer

The high-end Setai Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, now called Langham Place, took in one of Warren Shadd’s pianos. Source: NPR

Today’s music industry has no problem welcoming Black artists to the stage but time and time again those same musicians are met with resistance and contempt when they try to cross over into the business side of the industry.

For Warren Shadd, that racially charged opposition almost kept him from becoming the first Black piano manufacturer in America.

“As long as you’re singing and dancing, that’s your lane,” Shadd told The American Prospect’s Amanda Teuscher. “You try to get over to the corporate side of it, things change.”

In addition to facing the type of racist attitudes that tried to bar him from designing and building an innovative line of pianos, Shadd also had to deal with the simple fact that piano manufacturing was an incredibly expensive endeavor.

“No one gave me a million dollars,” Shadd says. “How do you do this with no money?”

It’s a loaded question, but one Shadd was able to find the answer to over time.

While access to capital would be one of the greatest obstacles for the talented musician, his musical lineage and sheer work ethic gave him the type of boost he needed to overcome adversity.

He has spent less than three years in the industry and is already a celebrated presence. His magnificent grand pianos have been featured on American Idol and played by musical greats like Cyrus Chestnut and Monty Alexander.

It’s a list of accomplishments that Shadd didn’t always imagine he would have—not because he doubted his abilities but simply because he wasn’t aware that his career would lead him to manufacturing pianos.

Ever since he was a young a child he had been praised as a “child prodigy” and was even featured in a 1964 edition of the Washington Daily News.

He was an 8-year-old drummer with exceptional talent. It wasn’t the furthest career from piano-making but it certainly didn’t create the expectation that that’s where he would end up.

The Washington Daily News article made note of Shadd’s musical heritage. His grandparents, parents and sister were also musical talents frequently praised for their skills.

It was Shadd, however, who was asked to take the stage at a “Jazz In Concert” series at the time.

What was supposed to be a celebratory moment was quickly ruined by the sour notes of racism.

The musical prodigy explained that his family started receiving death threats before he even touched the stage.

“They would call my house and say, ‘We’re going to kill that little n****r boy if he plays this concert,’ “ Shadd said. “It was like a barrage…It set a big uproar in the musicians’ union at the time. One side said, ‘He needs to play! He’s a child prodigy!’ Another side was saying, ‘Yeah, but if something happens, then we go down the tubes.”

Shadd was allowed to perform despite fears about what may happen. His father joined him on piano while Leon Robinson played bass.

While this particular concert ended without any major incidents, that wasn’t always the case.

Shadd recalled one time when audience members began tossing rocks at the stage and ended up hitting the young drummer’s mother in the chest.

Pianist Christian Sands stands with a Shadd Piano at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in 2014

Death threats also continued to pour in but Shadd said he believes he wasn’t exposed to all of the hurtful messages because his parents worked hard to shield him from the racist attacks.

After all, his father had already dealt with racism throughout his musical career and didn’t want his son to experience the same hardships.

“Besides being bandleader, and working a daytime government job, Shadd’s father was a piano technician—one of the only African Americans in the piano technicians’ guild, whose members often subjected him to racist jokes,” The American Prospect reported.

It was his father’s own legacy and interest in working on pianos that eventually inspired Shadd to follow the same path and always keepa  strong work ethic at the top of his priority list.

“Three o’clock in the morning, I’d hear him in the basement working on pianos,” he said. “This was around the clock. If he did all that, then who am I to slack?”

Shadd’s father became known throughout the Black community as the go-to man for piano repairs, which eventually connected Shadd to musical icons like The Temptations, the Delfonics, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and more. He even got to see many of the stars perform as his father serviced instruments at the Howard Theatre.

After an extensive career as a great musician, Shadd moved behind the scenes to start building the pianos his father once showed him how to service.

He has even put modern twists on the classical instruments, including a subwoofer in the seat and interactive touchscreens.

Even with a successful line of pianos, however, Shadd said his career is far from over.

“Even though there’s some things that seem like they’re huge, for me, I’m still not at the finish line,” he said.

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