His professional story is well known. Having been dealt a major career setback at an age where most men would have opted for retirement, RZ instead chose to re-invent the cymbal business with his own hand-crafted brand, a brand that would forever change the face and sound of popular music. With his bare hands he shaped the Sabian cymbal brand into his life's story - and by extension we became his family.
Robert (Bob) Zildjian was the descendant of 10 generations of Armenian cymbal makers. His father Avedis Zildjian emigrated to Boston from Turkey in the early 1900's. In 1928, his great-uncle Aram also came to Boston, bringing with him the family process and trade secrets in metalworking and cymbal-making. Together, they set up the Avedis Zildjian Company, where they began manufacturing cymbals for the rest of the world.
But the story is not quite so simple as that — it never really is. To know Bob Zildjian, it is important to understand the centuries-long journey taken by his family from the Ottoman Empire to New Brunswick, Canada. The history of the Ottoman Empire was marked by intense political upheaval – among other reasons, this is why precise dates and facts concerning the Zildjian family succession are not always clear. Records of birthdates and deaths, when kept at all, were stored in churches, which in many cases were burned to the ground.
But this much we know. For generations, the ancient family secret of cymbal-making passed from father to eldest son. However, at the turn of the twentieth century Bob’s grandfather Haroutian Zildjian rejected tradition by choosing to become the Attorney-General of Constantinople. And so his eldest son Avedis — Bob’s father — decided to seek opportunity in the land of America. Born December 6, 1888, Avedis had apprenticed in cymbal-making as a boy, but the business held little interest for him. And given his father’s decision, it seemed highly unlikely that the succession would ever pass to him, so he pursued other interests.
“Like so many young Armenians of the time,” Bob would later point out, “my father didn’t want to go into the army. The political climate in Turkey had always been hostile to Armenians, so when he got a chance to chaperone a rich Armenian family’s son to American in 1908, he jumped at the opportunity.”
Eventually Avedis Zildjian settled in the Boston area, set up a successful candy business, and married Alice Goodale, a descendant of solid Yankee stock. Alice bore him two sons, Armand, and then Bob, who loved to point out proudly he was born on July 14, Bastille Day, in 1923. In 1927, Avedis was surprised to receive a letter from his Uncle Aram announcing that the time had come to return to his homeland to claim his birthright. After much thought and consultation with Alice, Avedis wrote back to inform his uncle of the potential for a tremendous market in cymbals in the USA, and that Aram should instead come to Boston. Aram agreed, and for the first time, traditional Turkish cymbal making came to the new world under the name of A. Zildjian. For the next five decades, K. Zildjian in Istanbul and A. Zildjian in Boston would serve musicians around the globe both competitively and cooperatively.
As his father’s company grew, so did Bob, and it wasn`t long before he began working as a sweeper at the Zildjian Company during the summer. “My father paid me $2 a week, but he put $1.50 into a savings account in my name and only gave me fifty cents. But that wasn’t enough for me, and so I quit.” said Zildjian in an early interview. Demonstrating a head for business even at this young age, Bob went out and got a paper route that paid four times what he was making working for his father, keeping it all for himself. Though he may have avoided it, Bob couldn’t stay away from the cymbal business for long — it was in his blood.
At the age of 14 Bob, along with his older brother Armand, returned to apprentice at his father’s company and learned the secret manufacturing process. For a time, the two brothers got along very well. “We were under one despot — and that despot was my father”, Bob would claim later. Working under the heavy hand of their father served to unite the two brothers, but it would not always be this way.
Then along came the Second World War, and the impact it had on the production of cymbals was drastic. Copper and tin, essential to the cymbal making process, were also prime ingredients in the manufacture of shells and bullet casings. As a result, metal rationing almost resulted in the closing of the still fledgling A. Zildjian Company. Ironically, the only thing that kept them going was serving the military. They would provide cymbals for many Army, Navy and Marine bands.
The impact of the War on the family went beyond the business. Bob enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as an infantryman in Europe. After the horrors of the second Great War, Bob’s homecoming was the beginning of a new chapter in his life. As was the case with so many other returning soldiers, the war had long-lasting effects. Unsure and tentative about his mental state at the time, Bob sought advice from family and friends. Eventually a neighbor suggested that Bob join his deer hunting expedition to the quiet, scenic province of New Brunswick, as a chance to relax and reassess. “Any problems I had psychologically post-war went away once we got into these gorgeous woods”, he would later claim. This was Bob’s first encounter with Meductic – little did anyone know then how much that trip would eventually change the face of the drum industry around the globe.
Back in Boston at the Zildjian Company, Bob was an unstoppable force. Wearing many hats – accountant, advertising executive, artist relations, and sales — he quickly built a valuable list of personal contacts among dealers throughout the United States and the rest of the world. In 1958, Bob, with his wife Willi at his side, was the first American to display at the annual Frankfurt Musik Messe trade show. “My wife Willi and I used to go to trade show meetings and stand out in front of the booth for four or five days in a row,” he recalled. Bob spent the 1950’s and early 1960’s developing company sales outside the USA, primarily in Europe.
In 1960, Bob and Willi also traveled to Istanbul, where they finalized the purchase of the K. Zildjian Company. It was a pivotal trip in Bob’s career – eventually he would bring his cousins Michael and Gabe Zilcan, their father Kerope, and the ancient formula and hand hammering technique behind K. Zildjians to the Azco plant in Canada. “Those guys (his cousins) wanted to get out of Turkey. So in 1975 we brought over brothers Michael and Gabriel (Gabe) Zilcan, as well as their father Kerope. Gabe still works for us”, commented Bob shortly after founding SABIAN.
Although by this time the Jazz Age had already opened up previously unheard-of markets for their product, even that paled when the primal beat of rock’n’roll swept the continent. Fueled by television, boom-time affluence and millions of teenagers who all wanted to be rock stars, the demand for the company’s cymbals soared.
As a result, the production capacity of the Massachusetts plant was outstripped, and in 1967 Avedis Zildjian charged his son Bob with setting up a subsidiary operation to serve their rapidly expanding market. “We could have located to New England,” said Bob Zildjian at the time. “But there was one area that I knew well and believed in — southwest New Brunswick. I had been going there since 1946, and for 20 years since I had gone fishing with a local outfitter named Willard Way. I knew he was a dependable, hardworking guy who could manage men, so I got together with him, and we went looking for a location.
“I chose Meductic for two reasons. One was that the view up and down the river was simply beautiful. The other was that I wanted a rural place where the people who came to work for us would be self-sufficient, could be trained to our standards and would have no preconceptions about factory work. I told Willard to secure the land, and I put him in charge of building the factory and running the operation. And that’s how we started making AZCO cymbals in Meductic.”And so in 1968, 22 years after Bob’s post-war trip to the area, the Azco plant was opened in Meductic, NB.
In 1975, Bob closed the K. Zildjian factory in Turkey and brought his uncle Kerope and Kerope’s two sons Gabe and Michael to AZCO in Canada. “And we started making K. Zildjians,” Bob claimed. “Handmade cymbals exactly the same way they were made in Istanbul.”
In 1979, at the age of 90, Bob’s father died. In keeping with family tradition, Avedis left the entire business to his two sons, Bob and Armand. As the eldest son, Armand inherited the controlling share. Unfortunately, it was a partnership that would not last. The brothers quarreled, and two years of bitter litigation in Massachusetts courts resulted in a settlement under which Armand kept the A. Zildjian Company and Bob received the AZCO subsidiary.
“I was running 80% of that business and I was told at the death of my father that I was no longer in power and I was out. That was a terrible blow”, Bob recollected about that difficult period. So as it had many years before, Meductic again became a refuge for the turmoil in Bob’s life. On his own, but even more determined, Bob opened a brand new cymbal company in 1981, SABIAN – an acronym formed from the first two letters of the names of his children: Sally, Bill and Andy.
It was a huge challenge, not one that many men would have chosen to take on. At the age of 57, Bob was faced with having to build a brand new cymbal company and pit it against a cymbal company that was 350 years old. “It was not the easiest thing in the world, but I had an awful lot of good friends in the business.” SABIAN thrived under his direction. Bob Zildjian had the ability to bring out the best in people. Employees, dealers and musicians alike were honored to be associated with him.
“He makes the artists feel they’re really a part of the family, and that’s what Bob Zildjian instilled in every one of us at SABIAN”, comments Master Product Specialist Mark Love, who has been with the company since 1980. Indeed, to say that family was important to Bob would be an understatement. “This is a family business,” he would insist. “And if you have a family business, you can’t help having the people that work with you become part of the family too.”
“Bob Zildjian has taken us all on a trip that we would never have realized — many of us never even realized what we were good at in life, until Bob took us and found it in us”, comments Nort Hargrove, who began his career at the Azco factory factory in 1973, and is currently Sabian VP of Manufacturing — a true-life testament that Bob’s philosophy of family was much more than just words.
This philosophy would extend to musicians as well, especially young musicians and percussion students. Bob believed strongly that he could play an important role in helping young people’s dreams come true. “I think the music business is one I would encourage young people to take very seriously. It’s a great medium in which to work.” And so he funded the SABIAN PASIC Scholarship, awarded to a Canadian student of percussion each year.
Bob also believed it was important to honor the achievement of gifted percussionists — those whose performances had shaped the future of sound. He would set up a Sabian Lifetime Achievement Award, awarded each year at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC). Past winners include musical luminaries such as Jack DeJohnette and Vic Firth.
Bob would also be on the receiving end of many an award throughout his illustrious life, but he was most proud of the two bestowed by his adopted province of New Brunswick, the place he had sought refuge and the place he chose to build his legacy. First was the 2009 New Brunswick Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame Award, which honored the brightest business minds in the province while raising money for Junior Achievement programs. And second was the honorary degree he received from the University of New Brunswick in 2010. The Citation read: “An advocate of ‘thinking the unthinkable’…he has led his family of artisans and workers with what his friends call a supreme passion for the music and the people in the music industry…and for moving the art form forward in as many ways as possible with modern vision and creative innovation.”
“I’d like to be the best cymbal company in the world,” said Bob Zildjian in an early SABIAN interview. “I’m not that worried about being the biggest. But if we are the biggest, that’s good too. But being the best is primary…that’s my motivation.”