By Jonathan Plazonja
As difficult as it may be for today's drummers to believe, cymbals were hardly heard at all in popular music in the early part of this century. Instead, even as the seeds of jazz were being sown, cymbals were primarily used at the end of a number for a single big crash. Avedis Zildjian helped change all that.
Like a lot of influential people in music, Avedis came from humble beginnings. "My father was born in 1889 in Samatya, not far from Constantinople," recalled Armand Zildjian (who succeeded his father as President of the Zildjian cymbal company). "As a boy, Dad spoke Greek, Armenian, Turkish, French, and later (after coming to the U.S.), English. He emigrated to America in 1909 and got a job working in a candy factory in Boston. He was a quick learner, and soon started a candy business of his own. As he told me, 'Why would you want to work for someone else when you could have your own business?'"
In 1927, Avedis received a letter from his uncle, Aram, telling him that it was now his turn to take over the ancient family art of cymbal making. But rather than return to Turkey, where the Zildjian family had crafted cymbals since 1623 (and where he himself had apprenticed as a young boy), Avedis convinced Aram to move the company to the U.S.
"I was only eight years old when Aram came to America, but I remember him well," said Armand. "He was like no one I had ever seen before. He must have weighed 300 pounds, and he was baldheaded, with a white goatee and mustache. Aram was very helpful in organizing the factory from the beginning, staying on through most of the first year to help Dad get started. Even so, my father had concerns about entering the cymbal business (which had never been profitable) especially when he already had a successful candy business. It was my mother who thought it was a romantic story and persuaded him to consider it. So, Dad went around to the important music stores, asking them if they would buy his cymbals."
The move to the U.S. was a risky one. Demand for cymbals was low, and to make matters worse, months after Avedis opened the new cymbal factory outside of Boston, the Great Depression hit. The factory itself was an old, small, one-story building with a dirt floor.
"Working conditions were primitive in those days, and people worked very hard," Armand points out. "Initially, Dad worked in all facets of the business - from the melting to the billing. He persevered through the tough Depression years where others would have given up."
Avedis quickly came to know all the professional drummers of the day. He became very friendly with Ray Bauduc, who played with Bob Crosby. He also knew Chick Webb and Jo Jones. But it was probably Gene Krupa with whom he had the closest working relationship. "Oftentimes when Gene would visit the plant, he'd pick out his cymbals and then we'd all go out on Dad's boat, the Mahal," recalled Armand. "Gene had many great ideas about playing cymbals, such as using them as the timekeeper on the kit in place of the snare drum."
Left to Right: Avedis and Armand Zildjian listen to Shelly Manne test ride cymbals in 1947.
Krupa asked Zildjian to develop a thinner cymbal, which immediately became very popular. He also helped promote the use of more special-purpose cymbals. This had a big impact on the Zildjian Company's developmental efforts. In fact, many of the cymbals we take for granted in modem drumming - such fundamental models as splash, ride, crash, hi-hat, and sizzle cymbals - were all invented and named by Avedis Zildjian.
"At this time, the use of the hi-hat cymbal was just becoming popular," said Armand. "Jo Jones from Count Basie's band was helpful in refining Zi1djian's hi-hats. Later, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson helped Dad. Buddy, Gene and all the greats had a healthy respect for Dad, whom they viewed as one of the founding fathers of the music industry as we know it today."
There were, of course, setbacks. In 1939, the boiler in the laundry next door blew up, and the ensuing fire took most of the Zildjian company with it. However, four to five days later, Avedis had the business up and running. "On another occasion," Armand relates, "Dad went to light the oven, but let too much time elapse before lighting it. This caused an explosion that burned his entire face, and he was taken to the hospital. That same afternoon he came back from the hospital with his head completely bandaged and went immediately to his desk, where he typed out some bills the way he did every night. He was unstoppable!"
During World War II, Zildjian made cymbals for the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps marching bands. They also got orders from the British Admiralty. This was a very important part of the company's business, because copper and tin were allocated by the War Production Board. Without these orders, the War Production Board probably would have closed the plant down.
"The business grew rapidly during the swing era," continued Armand. "Dad continuously increased production over the years to meet that demand. He remained very devoted to the business that he had started; it was both his hobby and his life. Although he named me president of the Avedis Zildjian Company three years before his death, he never retired. He remained involved in the day-to-day running of the company until he died in 1979 at the age of 90. Dad's continued involvement provided the continuity needed in transitioning from one generation of Zildjians to another." (Recognizing the importance of this continuity, Armand worked closely with his daughter, Craigie, who is currently the company's Chief Executive Officer.)
"I learned a lot from my father," continued Armand. "He was a very decisive and astute businessman and a born leader. Yet he was also a very modest man with a warm side. He loved telling stories about his experiences and talking about how much the world had changed since he was a boy watching the camel caravans come into Constantinople. He was a powerful presence, but that's what it took to put cymbals where they are today."
The percussion industry has changed a great deal since Avedis Zildjian began making cymbals in 1929. But his countless innovations and pioneering production techniques earned him an indisputable place as one of the most influential musical instrument manufacturers of the century. His unflagging passion for his craft helped forever alter modem music as we know it.
Reprinted by permission of Modern Drummer, Inc.