With a piano technician as a father, Warren Shadd grew up surrounded by pianos: Pianos in the garage, in a warehouse, in the living room, in the kitchen.
“I couldn't help from just being there learning something about a piano,” he said.
Shadd will bring pizzazz to the True Blue Jazz Festival in Rehoboth Beach this year with one of his acclaimed baby grand pianos.
Shadd, known worldwide as the first African-American piano manufacturer, as well as a third-generation musician and second-generation piano technician, he said he's excited to hear belted out by a true jazz musician dancing her fingers across those ivory keys.
Shadd said he knows the value of a quality instrument, learning the trade from his hard-working father who was adamant that Shadd learned the ins and outs of piano repair. Throughout the years, Shadd has tuned or rebuilt pianos for Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin and dozens of other famous musicians, as well as for theaters, universities and The Library of Congress.
Shadd started tuning his talent at an early age, while also being surrounded by the jazz and ragtime music played by his father, grandmother and aunt, Grammy Award-winning artist Shirley Horn. But as a boy and young man, repairing pianos for other people wasn't his passion.
Banging on his drum set is what really got the young man's blood burning. Surrounded by fellow musicians – family members and friends – music has been a part of Shadd's life since he was learning to walk and talk.
“I was really geek-ish with piano sound and technology,” he said. “But I'm a drummer first, actually. From playing the drums and being a child prodigy, being a piano technician was something I knew how to do, but it was not my aim at that time.”
As he grew and eventually took over his father's piano business, Shadd realized he had a special opportunity to build his own brand and make his own unique pianos. So he walked away from his drum kits, which still sit in his Washington D.C.-area home to design pianos with innovative technology that combines an acoustic instrument with digital perks such as cameras, touch screens and even bluetooth.
“I wish I had time to do that again,” he said, recalling the thrill of banging on his drum kit as loudly as he could while playing in a high school rock band. “When I do get a chance to play the drums, it's very therapeutic.”
Shadd said he was exposed to all genres of music by the time he was a young man, but he has mostly lived a jazz-filled life.
“Listening to this music I grew up on and played my entire life, it makes me feel like I want to play,” he said.
But Shadd won't be making a musical comeback when the True Blue Jazz Festival hits town this weekend. While his fingers might be twitching to grip a drum stick, he said he'll find pleasure in the smooth sounds of the true blue jazz musicians set to hit the stage in Rehoboth.
“Those who are aficionados of pure jazz, they don't really get to see pure jazz music,” he said. “What differentiates True Blue, well, it's in the name. They have straight-ahead jazz.
“What they offer is something that's special, and something that's a little lost,” he said. “The aim here for True Blue Jazz is they want pure, straight-ahead jazz exclusively.”
The Shadd baby grand will be played Friday, Oct. 16, by Diane Shuur, a Grammy Award-winning vocalist and pianist. Shadd said she's absolutely fabulous.
“I hope it brings some joy to those listening to it, and hopefully they'll recognize that we offer phenomenal pianos,” he said.
Additional acts at the True Blue Jazz Festival, which runs through Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Clear Space Theatre and Rehoboth Beach Bandstand, include the Eddie Sherman Show featuring Peggy Raley and Geoff Gallante, the Cape Henlopen High School Jazz Band and the Rehoboth Beach Concert Band, as well as The Fred Hughes Trio featuring Vuyo Sotashe and the Jackie Browne Jazz Nonet, who played Oct. 15 and Oct. 16.
For more information about the True Blue Jazz Festival, go to www.truebluejazz.org.