A senior who attends Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest played a chord of melodies on a keyboard one recent Wednesday morning at school. He sways as his body's enveloped by the sounds reverberating around him. He squeezes his eyes while his fingers glide across the ivory keys. He doesn't look at the musical composition because he's mesmerized by an interactive piano.
"I love playing this piano," said Julian Spires, 18, of Northwest, who's headed to Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., to study jazz composition this fall. "You can feel everything on it." He refuses to play any other piano in Ellington's halls.
The principal agreed.
"It's the most popular piano at the school. The kids fell in love with it," said Rory Pullens, head of the school since 2006. "The Shadd has become a talking point for our visitors enamored by the historic and progressive piano in our lobby. It's taken on a life of its own."
The hybrid interactive piano sits in Ellington's main hall at Pullens' suggestion to the inventor, Warren M. Shadd, a native Washingtonian and child prodigy who played drums in his first jazz concert at the age of four. It should have been at Ellington for a week or two. Instead, it's been there more than 18 months.
Music lovers like Spires led Shadd, a second-generation piano technician and inventor, to leave it at the school. Time froze the moment Spires, an African American, played on the first piano created and manufactured by an African American during Black History Month.
"This isn't about me, it's bigger than me," said Shadd, in his 50s and who lives in Forestville, Md. "It's representing something positive. It represents perseverance and creativity made into reality."
The interactive piano is an acoustic one with modern tools to help musicians compose, edit or teach. It features computer technologies such as a touch screen, keyboard and scanner; a four-way video camera; self-teaching and music page-turning software; and high-end surround sound speakers. Also, the "Carresser" bench is equipped with speakers to increase the vibrations, which could be useful to those with disabilities, said Dr. Phillip Pearl.
"It's marvelous and offers special features to assist persons with vision loss, (who can read music by Braille), hearing loss, including special vibratory seating (to) feel the vibrations of the music's frequencies," said Pearl, chief of the Child Neurology division at Children's National Medical Center in Northwest, "and autism, including distance teaching where the teacher can be anywhere ... for those with less comfort with a physically proximate teacher, or ... special educators in regions remote to them."
A professor of pediatrics, neurology and music at The George Washington University School of Medicine and the Columbia College of Arts and Science in Northwest, Pearl worked with Shadd on a manuscript that detailed the "technical changes that augment the use of the piano to assist individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities." Autistic children and patients with Alzheimer's – people who've lost their verbal skills – still have their musical language. .
The piano can teach intelligently, and change the way children with disabilities are taught, said Shadd. "It's taking lessons to the next level. It's a workshop."
Shadd is also a third-generation musician who toured with celebrities, including jazz icon Wynton Marsalis and the late Grammy Award-winning artist Shirley Horn who also happened to be his aunt.
During his youth, he played drums in jazz concerts through college at Howard University. He also played piano, performed at past inaugurations and on Broadway. Following his father, James Shadd, a technician, pianist and band leader who founded Shadd's Piano Hospital Service in 1941 in Northeast, the younger Shadd also tuned, repaired and rebuilt pianos for various clients.
In 2002, he founded Shadd Inc., a manufacturing company, and it's taken him about 10 years to see the fruits of his labor.
In November 2012, he sold the first African-American manufactured acoustic piano to the Setai Hotel in New York City. The Shadd piano #001 is in the jazz lounge, Bar On Fifth, he said.
Even with what's been called a 24th century invention in the 21st century, he faced difficulties he felt were due to his skin color – unable to get a patent attorney until the sixth attempt; unable to secure funding for the prototype; and setbacks in the competitive world of piano manufacturing.
"It was a nine-year grind of daily obstacles but I had to persevere," he said. "Trying to create something that's never been done, I had to have unbelievable strength and resilience as you get smacked down every day." Shadd's pianos cost anywhere between $6,000 and $275,000.
Shadd wants to put pianos into public schools around the country. So far, Ellington is the first and Pullens is hoping for another.
"We're getting our building renovated this year and with that will come more Shadd pianos," he said. "Every artist should be so lucky to have at least one."