Armand Zildjian, 81; Head of Centuries-Old Cymbal-Making Firm

Times Staff Writer

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 music scene.

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 talent.

"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.

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