Robert "Bob" Zildjian, founder of the Sabian Cymbal Company and a prominent figure in the global percussion industry for six decades, died on March 27 at his home in Brunswick, Maine after a brief battle with cancer. He was 89 years old.
Endowed with a sharp intellect and a cutting wit, he applied his boundless energy to expanding the percussion industry in the years following World War II, first at The Zildjian Company, founded by ancestors in Turkey, and later at Sabian Cymbals. He often remarked, "The business is the family, and the family is the business," and the lines between his personal and commercial life were blurred. Leading percussionists and business associates were close personal friends, his children were involved in the cymbal business, and thinking about the business occupied most of his waking hours.
Born on July 14, 1923, in Boston, Zildjian descended from generations of cymbal makers and had little choice but to carry on the family tradition. (He often joked that being born on Bastille Day, the start of the French Revolution, was the source of his fiery temperament.) Zildjian records indicate that around 1600, the first Avedis perfected a unique process for creating a bronze alloy that was both musically expressive and durable. As his cymbals gained acclaim, he adopted the Zildjian surname because "Zil" is the Armenian word for cymbal, "dj" means "maker," and the suffix "ian" means son of. Based in Istanbul, the Zildjian family cymbal business was sustained over successive generations by passing the secret alloy formula to the eldest son.
By the time Robert's father Avedis Armand Zildjian was born in 1888, the cymbal business was burdened by a complex and unwieldy family tree. Although Avedis apprenticed at the factory as a boy, as one of the younger members in a line of brothers and male cousins, he had little chance of ever running the business. Bob Zildjian later explained, "Like so many young Armenians of the time, my father didn't want to go into the army. The political climate in Turkey was always hostile for Armenians, so in 1908, when he got a chance to chaperone a rich Armenian family's son to America, he jumped at the opportunity."
Avedis Armand Zildjian took a job in a candy factory upon landing in Boston. However, he chafed at the idea of working for someone else, and within a few years, had launched his own candy business. He was on the way to becoming a prosperous candy maker when in 1927 he received an unexpected request from his Uncle Aram in Bucharest. Due to several deaths and catastrophes, Avedis was next in line to receive the secret alloy formula. Would he return to Turkey to take over the business? By that time Avedis was firmly established in Boston, with a family and an American wife, and had no interest in returning to his homeland. Instead, he persuaded Aram to re-establish the cymbal business in the U.S. In 1928, with a casting and mill operation, the Avedis Zildjian Company began making cymbals in Quincy, a Boston suburb.
Bob Zildjian's introduction to the cymbal business began at an early age, sweeping floors, packing cymbals, and doing other odd jobs after school. His father paid him $2 a week for his efforts, depositing $1.50 in a savings account and giving him 50 cents to spend. During his high school years, Bob augmented his income from the Zildjian Company playing in several local dance bands. After serving in the U.S. infantry in Europe during World War II, he entered Dartmouth University, graduating in 1948 with a degree in history and philosophy.
After decades of acute hardship caused by the Great Depression of the '30s and the manufacturing restrictions enacted during World War II, the music industry finally began to rebound in '50s. The business Bob confronted when he joined the Zildjian Company full-time was tiny by contemporary standards, but brimming with optimism. "In those days, an order for 12 cymbals was a big deal," he once recalled. However, the small scale of the business allowed him to hone his skills in a variety of disciplines. He and his older brother Armand were both involved in sales, accounting, marketing, production, and every other facet of the Zildjian business.
In the '30s and '40s, Avedis Zildjian had actively sought the opinion of leading drummers, including George Wettling, Gene Krupa, Ray Bauduc, and Jo Jones, and tailored his cymbals to accommodate their playing styles. Armand and Bob Zildjian continued the practice and forged close working relationships with subsequent generations of leading players, cementing Zildjian's market position.
In 1951, Bob married Margaret Willimina "Willi" McTavish. Shortly after they were married, he overcame his father's initial objections and took her on a business trip to the West Coast. "It was the first time she'd ever been west of Albany," he remarked. Ever since, the two were inseparable and traveled widely, calling on retailers and representing the company at conventions. In 1957, they were among the first Americans to attend the Frankfurt Fair.
In 1967, they traveled to Istanbul where they negotiated the purchase of the K. Zildjian manufacturing operations from distant relatives. The acquisition was prompted by a longstanding trademark battle with the Gretsch Company. Gretsch owned the K. Zildjian trademark in the U.S. and distributed the Turkish-made cymbals in direct competition with the Avedis Zildjian Company. By taking control of the Turkish plant, the Zildjians were able to wrest the trademark from Gretsch and become the sole owners of the Zildjian brand worldwide.
By the late '60s, with the rock 'n ' roll boom in full swing, the Zildjian plant in Quincy was operating at full capacity. Bob and Willi were avid outdoors people and regularly ventured to New Brunswick, Canada because of the exceptional salmon fishing on the St. John River. In 1968, they decided that a second cymbal plant, in Meductic, New Brunswick, on the banks of the St. John River, was the key to solving Zildjian's capacity issues. While the factory provided an ample excuse to fish and hunt, it also paved the way for an aggressive international expansion program. "After World War II, the U.S. was so prosperous compared to the rest of the world, the European countries erected enormous protective tariffs to keep our products out," Bob explained. "But our factory in Canada was part of the British Commonwealth, so our exports were subject to much lower duties. It made a big difference in the U.K., Australia, and the rest of Europe."
Avedis Zildjian died in 1979 at the age of 91, leaving control of the Zildjian Company to Armand and Bob, and long-simmering tensions quickly surfaced. After the two reached an impasse, Bob was confronted with two choices: taking a cash payout for his interest in the Zildjian Company and retiring, or taking over the Meductic plant, and getting a green light to continue as a cymbal maker. At a hastily convened family meeting in their kitchen he presented the two options to Willi and their three children, Sally, Billy, and Andy. The decision was immediate and unanimous: take the factory and stay in the cymbal business. Sabian Cymbals came into being a few months later. (Willi takes credit for the company name, which represents an amalgam of the first syllables of the names of their three children.) After launches in Europe and Asia in 1982, the Sabian cymbal line made its debut in the U.S. market in 1983.
After the two Zildjian brothers split, the conventional industry wisdom was that Sabian and Zildjian would be locked in a perpetual zero-sum battle for market share, and the resulting price war would impoverish both companies. Few if any anticipated the real outcome of the split: an unprecedented flurry of product development that injected unexpected growth into the global cymbal market. Consider that in 1981, the combined product offering of all the world's cymbal companies added up to about 300 different models. Today, drummers can choose from a range of product that includes around 3,800 distinct cymbal models. Not surprisingly, with so much choice available, cymbal sales have hit levels no one projected 25 years ago.
In an era when so many manufacturing tasks have been delegated to computer-controlled machinery, the notion of artisans wielding a hammer and anvil to make cymbals seems a bit quaint. But at Sabian, it's a core element of the production process. At the Meductic plant, a team of five hammerers toil away using techniques that would be immediately familiar to a cymbal maker from Istanbul 200 years ago. It is not an easy job. The hammering process takes between ten and 20 minutes per cymbal, depending on its size and the character of the metal, and hammerers have to take breaks to avoid repetitive stress injuries and because after too much non-stop hammering they lose their "touch." What's more, mastering the craft requires a multi-year apprenticeship and no small amount of dedication.
Sabian management has no sentimental attachment to arduous handwork, as evidenced by the wide use of automation throughout the plant. Computer-controlled heat sensors are used to monitor oven temperatures during the casting and annealing processes. There is also a slick robotic arm that adds efficiency to the process of buffing cymbals to a brilliant golden hue. But the reason for continuing with the outwardly antiquated hand hammering process is simple: it works. According to Bob, "Hand hammering is what gives these cymbals their musical soul and what sets Sabian apart in a competitive market."
Andy Zildjian became president of Sabian in 2006, but Bob remained active in management until recently, spending most of the summer in a cottage in Meductic near the main production facility.
In addition to his wife Willi, sons Andy and Wilson (Bill), and daughter Sally Zildjian Teague, Bob is survived by eight grandchildren.