By Claudia Luther
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 2 2003
Armand Zildjian, who for more than two decades headed the nearly
400-year-old family firm that provides cymbals to some of the best-known
percussionists appearing on concert and club stages, has died. He was 81.
Zildjian died of cancer Dec. 26 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Though Zildjian may not be a household word to most non-musicians, everyone
with a radio or a CD player probably has heard a Zildjian cymbal thousands
of times over the years.
Among those who use the K Constantinople, the K Custom Special Dry HiHat,
the A Zildjian & Cie vintage ride or any one of dozens of other models are
Ringo Starr, who is said to have used the A Zildjian line on all the
classic Beatles recordings, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Ginger Baker of Cream
and Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer.
Armand Zildjian (pronounced ZILD-gin) was heir to a business that began in
1623 in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. His ancestor Avedis, who was
looking for a way to turn metal into gold, stumbled upon an alloy combining
tin, copper and a little silver into a sheet of metal that could emit a
crashing sound without cracking.
Avedis was renamed Zildjian — zil is Turkish for cymbal, ji means maker
and ian is the Armenian suffix for “son of” — and launched a business that
harbored the secret formula passed on from oldest son to oldest son for
about a dozen generations, including Armand’s father, Avedis Zildjian III.
When Avedis died, however, he wanted to be fair to his two sons, so he
revealed the secret to Armand and Armand’s younger brother, Robert. Thus
ensued a legal battle that resulted in Robert’s breaking away in 1981 to
form Sabian, a Canadian firm that competes fiercely with Zildjian.
Armand Zildjian himself broke tradition by announcing several years before
his death that his daughter, Craigie, would be his successor. She is the
first woman in such a position since the company’s inception. Craigie
Zildjian became chief executive of the Norwell, Mass.-based firm in 1999.
Avedis Zildjian Co. evolved from a firm that provided noisy instruments to
scare the 17th century enemies of Turkish soldiers to one that provided
percussive instrumentation for the passionate crescendos of symphonies by
such 19th century composers as Berlioz and Wagner.
By the mid-20th century, Zildjian was the leading provider of what had
become a nearly indispensable instrument for jazz groups, rock ‘n’ roll
bands and school and symphony orchestras. It later began producing
drumsticks. Its sales in 2001 totaled $37 million, according to the firm.
Armand Zildjian, a gravel-voiced man known for his friendliness and warmth,
is quoted on the Zildjian Web site (www.zildjian.com) as crediting jazz
drummers Gene Krupa and Chick Webb with bringing the cymbal onto the modern
According to Zildjian, Krupa started using cymbals to keep time and provide
background sounds in much the same way that drums were being used. To help
him out, the Zildjian firm developed the “ride” cymbal now so familiar in
drum sets to sustain a chinga ching, chinga ching beat.
“All of a sudden the rhythm and drive of the drum set changed from the
snare drum to the cymbal,” Zildjian wrote on his Web site. “The ride cymbal
…. nailed down the time, which was more hip and swingier than press rolls
on a snare drum. But the cymbals had to be thinner. Gene Krupa was the
first one to come to the factory to say that to my father.”
Zildjian said there were no thin cymbals made when the business moved from
Turkey to the United States in 1929.
“All the old Ks from Istanbul were like band cymbals,” he said. “They were
heavy. And in those days they played all the rhythm on the snare drum —
press rolls brzzz up and brzzz up. Then at the end of the song, bang they
hit it, and it could have been anything, you know? A garbage can would have
sounded as good. Cymbals never had any prominence.”
Making thinner cymbals at Krupa’s suggestion “got the whole thing going
right” for be-bop, swing, jazz and all the later musical styles, Zildjian
said in a company biography.
As his comments probably make clear, Armand Zildjian also was a drummer who
kept a set of left-handed drums in his office to test various Zildjian
cymbals and demonstrate them for visiting musicians.
Drummer Max Roach told Lisa Rogers of the Percussive Arts Society, which
inducted Zildjian into its hall of fame, that Zildjian showed some musical
“I’ve seen Armand do some uncanny things with the cymbals and a pair of
sticks,” Roach said. “I daresay that he would have been a great drummer if
he had stuck to it.”
Armand Zildjian was born in Quincy, Mass., and began working in his
father’s factory at 14.
“As a kid, I used to skip school when I knew my father had a drummer coming
in,” he told Modern Drummer writer Rick Mattingly. “Whatever band was in
town — Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton — they would always come
out on the steam train that ran out to North Quincy,” where the firm was
previously located. “I was always dying to talk with them, or to see them
play or watch them test cymbals.”
He attended Colgate University before serving in the Pacific with the Coast
Guard during World War II.
After the war, he returned to work in his father’s factory in the “melting
room” and the shipping room. He said he matched HiHat cymbals — the
familiar paired instruments that produce the chick-chick sound when
operated with a foot pedal — “by holding them in my hand, without having
to use the pedal. Then I’d do the ride cymbals and crash cymbals.”
Zildjian was appointed company president in 1977 and chairman in 1979. He
received an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music and, in
addition to being inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame,
also is on the Guitar Center’s Rock Walk in Hollywood. He recently received
Modern Drummer magazine’s editors’ achievement award.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Andra; his
brother; daughters Debbie Zildjian, vice president of human resources at
the firm, and Wendy Mets; a son, Robert; three stepchildren; eight
grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.