Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Mason & Hamlin BB Piano

For jazz pianists, especially those of us who came up in the “acoustic pre-electric era,” when most clubs had either a piano or a B-3 on the stage, appreciation of a good piano was established early. And that appreciation runs deep. We had to adjust to whatever instrument was in the club, whatever condition it was in, and make music with it. When musicians were laughing at the prospect of the electric Wurlitzer finding its place on stage, we were struggling with acoustic pianos that were more than likely out of tune, broken and had little or no amplification. When I say that my appreciation of a good piano is deep I speak from having experienced the very best to the very worst, each experience, both good and bad, leaving a lasting mark on my soul.

Long before I played my first note, a master craftsman and inventor named Emmons Hamlin hooked up with a talented musician named Henry Mason to make the very finest musical instrument in the world. And the company they founded in 1854 has been carrying on that tradition ever since. “Mason & Hamlin has always been built pretty much to a formula that dates all the way back to what is called the Boston Era [1881-1932],” explains Cecil Ramirez, the national sales manager. “We follow a time-honored tradition, using the very finest materials in the world, building each piano by hand and paying attention to the most scrupulous detail. Our pianos today have Mason & Hamlin Boston imprinted on the plate.”

The first thing I noticed was the warmth I felt as I sat down to play the Mason & Hamlin BB piano; it’s the feeling a pianist gets before the first note is played. It is the welcoming warmth of an inanimate object that can only be described in abstract terms. The same experience one has when sitting in a new car for the first time: It’s either comfortable or it’s not. This piano felt comfortable.

As I began to play I knew immediately that the action was responsive to my heavy playing as well as my most subtle nuances. The hallmark of a good piano is that it feels good enough to inspire the player to reach out and go in other directions. This model did not have an imposing bottom. A lot of grands boom out from under an open lid. This is good for some situations, especially when you’re with a 90-piece symphony orchestra. But I think that the Mason & Hamlin’s strong round bottom is preferable in ensemble playing and probably easier to amplify.

As I rolled up toward the upper register I experienced a soft array of tones and colors. It did not cut through the air like a glockenspiel, although some players like a bell-tonelike upper register, especially if you’re trying to slice through the wall of sound produced by some styles of music. But again, for ensemble playing I think that the crisp, clear sound of the Mason & Hamlin is preferable. More importantly, I think that the colors available in all of the registers will encourage the player to reach out, rather than back off. The sustain was more than adequate and would not distort the performance of a “heavy footer.”

For the players who aren’t familiar with Mason & Hamlin, I would say that it’s just a matter of sitting down and playing one of its pianos. I think you’ll find out that you can communicate on this instrument, that it will give you what you need to get into your music, not having to deal with unevenness, bad sounds and so on. You become one with this piano as it becomes your voice. You’ll be able to pull sounds, colors and textures out of this piano that may not be available in other brands.

Only two grand sizes are produced today: The 5-foot, 8 1/2-inch Artist Grand-Model A and the 7-foot Semi Concert Grand Model BB. Over the past year the sales of the Model A have increased. Many regard this model as the largest-sounding piano that is less than six feet in the industry today. The ever-popular Professional Studio Upright Model 50 continues to be a top seller.

You may not see Mason & Hamlin in as many venues as one might expect. This has nothing to do with the sound quality but rather the company’s having suspended production of the 9-foot grand, which is the choice of most concert halls. However, many of the major jazz clubs around the country have both older and newer Mason & Hamlin pianos. As I make my way around the scene I can say that I would always feel comfortable performing on a Mason & Hamlin. Now I just have to figure out how to get one into my living room.

Originally Published