FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Upright downfall

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Upright downfall

 Your editor at his upright with clarinetist Don Rouse

Sam Smith - This is not a good year for Steinway. First the company was taken over by a hedge fund. Now David Jenson, my piano tuner tells me that the wood on my 115 year old Steinway upright has dried out and isn't holding things like screws like it once did.

I asked David how my piano compared in age among the ones he tunes. He said he had one older up in the Rangely Lake area, about a hundred miles from here.

I bought the 1898 Steinway in the early 1970s when uprights were not popular. The guy at Kitt's Music Store in DC told me that I should just come in and get whatever they had that day. The afternoon I followed his advice the Steinway was the only upright in the shop. And so I bought it. For $300.

James Shadd

For years it was cared for and refinished by James Shadd, a pianist and band leader who had backed up Josephine Baker during WWII among other things. Shadd started his piano hospital in 1941 and one of the delights of having him tune your piano would be that he would tell you some great stories and, when he was through, let loose with a few jazz numbers. Once he told me that his mother had a band that Doris Duke used regularly. Doris Duke gave his mother a white Cadillac, "but, you know, my mama drank that Cadillac right up."

When James Shadd passed, his son Warren took over. His firm sells and fixes all sorts of pianos, ad was the first to bridge acoustic pianos with new technology that includes touchscreen monitors, built-in audio, Internet access, DVD/BluRay Drive, MIDI and so forth. Warren, whose mother was a stride piano player and aunt was Shirley Horn, not only is deep into pianos but started playing drums when he was four. .He's serviced pianos for Herbie Hancock, Tony Bennett, and Aretha Franklin. and performed or recorded on drums with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Dizzy Gillespie.

So my upright has had some pretty wonderful attention.

Upright being introduced to Maine
It even survived being moved to Maine with us four years ago thanks in no small part to the fine attention of piano tuner David Jensen.

But now the end is in sight, especially thanks to a bad E in the octave below middle C, It's hard to explain to non-musicians but losing a favorite instrument is like losing an arm or a leg. It allowed you to do things you never could have done otherwise.

I don't have any idea what I'll do now, but while I figure it out, I'll just work on avoiding that E below middle C, and cling to one of the best relationships I ever had.