Zildjian History

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Zildjian History

Modern drummer NOVEMBER 1983

Interviews with: Kerope Zilcan, Robert Zildjian, Billy Zildjian, and Gabe Zilcan.

Haroutian Zildjian, and among his children we know of two sons: Avedis, the elder, and Kerope, the younger. Upon Haroutian's death, Avedis took over the business, which he ran with great vigor until his death in 1865.
Avedis had two sons, Haroutian and Aram Zildjian, neither of whom were of age at the time of his death, so the process and command of the family business passed to Kerope, Avedis' younger brother. Kerope had 12 children in all: two sons and ten daughters; Diran Zildjian was the eldest son, and Levon Zildjian the younger; among the daughters, Victoria was the eldest, and of her other sisters we need only be concerned with Akabi Zildjian and Filor Zildjian.

It was around the dawn of the 20th century when an obscure series of events precipitated the fissure in the family business that found the descendants of one brother, Avedis Zildjian, setting up an American enterprise, and the descendants of the other brother, Kerope, carrying on in Istanbul. This period of time was marked by intense political upheaval throughout Europe and, among other reasons, this is why precise dates and facts concerning the Zildjian families succession is unclear. Records of birth dates and deaths, when kept at all, were stored in churches and Bibles, which in many cases were put to the torch.

So while precise information isn't available, it is clear that from 1900-1930 the Zildjian family process passed into the hands of several men and—wonder of wonders—at least one woman, Victoria Zildjian (putting to rest the old family yarn, "We never tell the women").

Kerope's sons, Diran and Levon (and a forgotten cousin), are believed to have taken charge of the foundry in Istanbul for short periods of time, though it is unclear if this was while their father was alive or after his death (believed to have been around 1909). Robert Zildjian believes that in 1909 the family process passed to Aram, as the eldest male member (his older brother, Haroutian, being already well-established in legal and political circles, took a pass on the family business), and that Diran and Levon were probably not of age. However, as neither brother is believed to have lived into the 1920s, it is probable that they were both already dead at this time or that they shared the family formula.

In any event, Aram Zildjian was, in Robert's words, "a playboy, a screw-off and a rabble-rouser. He tried to blow up the Sultan. Eventually they found out he was involved, and he was forced to leave Turkey."
So who kept the foundry going in Constantinople? We have mentioned that Kerope had ten daughters. Akabi Zildjian married one Mikhail Dulgaryian, and they had two sons, Mikhail and Kerope (and a daughter, Clementine), both of whom came into the family business. Sister Filor Zildjian married a Yuzbashian and had a son, Vahan Yuzbashian, who was to run the company's business office for a while.

Kerope, born April 11, 1914, today lives in a white house across the road from the Sabian factory, but for many years in Turkey he was in charge of production in the K. Zildjian cymbal foundry, specifically the hand-hammering. In halting English, he explains that even he is unable to make sense of this garbled family tree. "Too many people, too confusing," he laughs, shaking his head. "My brother, Mikhail," he continues, "is oldest. I no have formula. Mikhail learn the formula from our Aunt Victoria. She keep the factory running for many, many years because she was eldest sister, and Aram not around. I think she die in 1920s—cannot remember year. I think she also teach formula to Aram."

Truth be told, whether Aram learned the formula from his late Uncle Kerope or from his Aunt Victoria, it is apparent that he was not alone in this knowledge. "After World War I," Robert recollects, "Aram was in Bucharest, Romania. Mikhail Dulgaryian followed him up there to join him in the business, because Aram was the number one guy, but they got into some sort of blowup. Mikhail went bonkers, tore up the foundry, wrecked the machinery, and returned to Istanbul, where the day-to-day management of the company was being handled by Yakko Toledo, a partner in the export firm of Toledo & Ahrenstein. Toledo ran the operation in Istanbul in the '20s, and Mikhail went in with him. At this point Aram decided to hand down the process to my father, who (as a grandson of Avedis Zildjian) was a direct descendant of the older brother, while Mikhail (as a grandson of the younger brother Kerope—on his mother's side) was not."

Where was Robert Zildjian's father at this time? In America. Born December 6, 1888, Avedis Armand Zildjian was the son of Haroutian Zildjian and the nephew of Aram Zildjian. He had apprenticed in cymbal-making as a boy, but the business held little interest for him, and as it seemed highly unlikely that the succession would ever pass to him (his father, you'll remember, had let it pass to brother Aram in 1909), he pursued other interests. "Like so many young Armenians of the time," Robert points out, "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 chaperon a rich Armenian family's son to America, he jumped at the opportunity."

Avedis Armand Zildjian settled in the Boston area, set up a successful candy business, and married a girl of solid Yankee stock, Alice "Sally" Goodale, who gave him two sons, first Armand and then Robert (born, he proudly points out, on Bastille Day, July 14, 1923). Then in 1927, he received a letter from his Uncle Aram in Bucharest, informing him that the time had come for him to return to his homeland and claim his birthright. Avedis wrote back to his uncle and told him that, as there already existed a tremendous potential market for cymbals in the U.S., Aram should instead come to Boston, which, in the autumn of his life and speaking no English, Aram did.

Thus in 1929, Aram retrained his nephew in the family process, and the art of cymbal casting, rolling and hammering. The Avedis Zildjian Co. began making handmade musical instruments for the burgeoning jazz marketplace. Through his contact with great drummers like George Wettling, Gene Krupa, Ray Bauduc, Chick Webb, Sid Catlett and Jo Jones, Avedis Zildjian evolved his family's instruments to better accommodate the playing styles of the American swing era.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment which was to plague Avedis for most of his life, and its ultimate resolution inadvertently led to Sabian Ltd. The American market had over the years gradually become the main source of demand for Turkish (er . . . Armenian) cymbals, but with the tremendous distances between manufacturer and consumer, and the time lag in custom making orders for delivery, coverage was very ineffective. So in 1926, Aram Zildjian signed an agreement with Fred Gretsch Sr., and around the same time, Yakko Toledo did likewise. The net result was that the Fred Gretsch Co., in addition to becoming the exclusive distributor in America for Zildjian cymbals, ended up owning the trademarks K. Zildjian , A. Zildjian and Zildjian.

So Avedis Armand Zildjian began his U.S. cymbal-making business on a sour note, outflanked as it were by Gretsch on one side and by the K. Zildjian Co., of Istanbul and the descendants of Kerope Zildjian, on the other; these were, after all, the authentic Turkish Zildjians that discerning drummers had been playing for years. But Avedis Zildjian Co. cymbals had an advantage that would ultimately make them the pre-eminent force in the marketplace. That was proximity to America's great urban centers and to its leading musicians.

"If my father hadn't listened to retailers like Bill Maither, and drummers like Gene Krupa and Jo Jones, he might still be making clunkers—thick, heavy cymbals that you couldn't ride or phrase on. People who are trying to deify my father will never understand that he didn't develop the stuff. It finally came through him, and thank God he was open enough to listen to the musicians, to turn their needs and suggestions into good musical instruments. And by the end of the '30s, after Aram returned to Europe and the original factory burned down, my father was able to design a new space in Quincy, Mass, that incorporated all his ideas about using machines to do the heavy work."

Meanwhile, back in Turkey, the descendants of Kerope Zildjian were continuing to make cymbals entirely by hand, far from the weaning influence of jazz musicians, against a backdrop of intense change. In 1921, Turkey became—ostensibly—a republic, and by 1935, as Kerope recalls it, "Everyone had to change names; Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jew. They say there can be no more names ending in -ian sound, because most Armenian names end in -ian. And they say, everyone must have birth certificate." Kerope's eldest son, Gabriel (born September 29, 1941)—one of the hand hammerers from Istanbul, now head of product testing and quality control for Sabian—explains that, "My Uncle Mikhail, as head of the family, went to the government to get a birth certificate, and because he couldn't use the -ian, he picked Zilcan, which sounds like Zildjian in Turkish. Zil- means cymbal and -can is the big bell. You see, my Uncle Mikhail handled the business after Aram left Roumania to start the American company with Bob's father, Avedis. He inherited the company, and the change from Dulgaryian to Zilcan was made because they wanted to make it more like it was the ongoing family and because there was nobody left in Turkey from the Avedis Zildjian side of the family. So whoever inherited the company was from my grandmother Akabi (Zildjian) Dulgaryian's side."

In 1941, Kerope Zilcan narrowly escaped being killed in a political massacre. Then, the company was dealt an economic blow in the form of a special income tax. It was only through the financial intervention of Yakko Toledo's son-in-law, Sali Kovo, that the K. Zildjian Co. was saved. Kovo, in effect, became the owner and general- manager. It was in this form that Mikhail and Kerope Zilcan continued to produce K. Zildjians.

In 1951, Avedis Zildjian Co. finally won back the rights to the trademark A. Zildjian from the Fred Gretsch Co. In 1955, they pressed the issue in another suit to try and get the Zildjian trademark back, protesting that nobody in Turkey had the right to make a Zildjian. Mikhail Zilcan flew over as a witness for Gretsch to substantiate their claim that it wasn't the same product, and a jury of musicians decided that A. Zildjian and K. Zildjian cymbals were different instruments, so the old Gretsch contract stood.

All this time in America, Armand and Robert Zildjian had been learning their father's trade, and though Armand was the eldest, Avedis Zildjian insisted that both his sons be in the business. He taught them both the secret Zildjian process. "I never had any choice, that's for sure," Robert laughs. "Armand and I did a lot of research into the relationship between the width of the cup and the bow of the cymbal, and we eventually discovered ways of doing things that became the industry standard."

But all this time, K. Zildjian was a burr in their backside. "I had import figures which showed that Paiste was our legitimate competition and was cutting into our sales, but my father was just obsessed with K. Zildjian. So finally around 1963, I told him, 'Look, you're going to Istanbul. Why don't you go talk to Kovo, who owns all the machinery and trademarks, and find out if he'd like to sell.' But my father went in there with his dukes up, got into a terrific argument and nothing was discussed. So Tony Wallace, who worked for percussion S.A. (our European distribution company), and I began negotiations."

Finally, in 1968, Robert Zildjian and Percussion S.A. bought K. Zildjian Co. and all the European trademarks back on behalf of the Avedis Zildjian Co. By 1973, Robert Zildjian had negotiated an agreement with Baldwin (who then owned Gretsch), guaranteeing them exclusive distribution rights in the U.S. for 10 years in exchange for all trademarks.

What happened to K. Zildjian next can only be understood in the context of another development, the formation of Azco Ltd. in Meductic, New Brunswick, in 1968. "We were having labor problems at the factory in North Quincy because of the different requirements for oven room workers and machine operators, so my father thought we might try breaking them up into two separate plants, one that would just do casting and rolling, and one that would do finishing work. I'd been coming to Willard Way's hunting and fishing lodge in Meductic for years. I was sitting under a tree one day, and I turned to him and said, 'Willard, how'd you like to run a cymbal factory?' He said 'Sure, why not,' and six months later we opened.

"From '68-70, we produced Zilco cymbals. There were two types of Zilcos. Originally there was a Zildjian that didn't make it, a second; then there was a Zilco that was a thinner rolling done without hammering, which cut the cost considerably. And that's when Dick Dane and I invented the pressing process for cymbals, which eventually replaced the old Quincy drop hammer that I developed in 1955. But after 1970, Quincy needed all of our production for Zildjians, so they'd send castings up to Azco and we'd make them into cymbals—eventually we were responsible for 40% of the company's output.

"Then in 1975, after we'd been bringing K. Zildjians in for Gretsch, things became impossible with the Turkish government. I had to go to Gretsch and explain that we were taking K. Zildjian out of Turkey, bringing the guys to the Azco factory in Canada, and that we'd be producing the K's up there." Thus, for a little while anyway, the descendants of Haroutian Zildjian, of the two brothers Avedis and Kerope Zildjian, were reunited in North America after years of transoceanic competition and conflict. But then in February, 1979, Avedis Armand Zildjian passed away after a long and fruitful life and his cousin, Mikhail Zilcan, died a few short months later.

At that point, everything hit the fan, resulting in a drawn-out business divorce that left Armand Zildjian in control of the Avedis Zildjian Co. (and all trademarks thereof), while Robert Zildjian and his extended family, Kerope and Gabriel Zilcan, Robert's wife Willie and their three children Sally, Billy and Andy (SaBiAn), continued to make cymbals out of the old Azco factory in Meductic as Sabian Ltd.

Rumors have been fast and furious on the street as to details. To make a long, tedious story short and polite, Armand and Robert had differing philosophies and styles of management and cymbal-making. After their father died, the festering differences between Robert and Armand became irreconcilable, and after two and a half years of drawn-out negotiations ("Armand and I were this close to a handshake agreement on the whole settlement," Robert sighs, "but a lawyer kept everybody at each other's throats"), a complicated disengagement was drawn up, which didn't permit Sabian Ltd. to come onto the world market until January, 1982, and prevented them from competing in the U.S. market until January, 1983.

"As far as we're concerned," Robert concludes, "it's much more important to be responsible for what you manufacture and market than it is to be named Stradivarius. We want to make the best cymbals the world's ever seen, and our AA and HH lines are more than equal to the challenge of any manufacturer. It's kind of hard to take 40 years of your life, put that all aside and start over again, but that's what we're doing, so to hell with all this petty bickering—let's all get on with the real quality manufacturing of cymbals. I know too many good musicians to want to see them disappointed—and ultimately, we're nothing without the musicians. The constant creation and re-creation of music that's been going on for 10,000 years is a lot more important than any of us."

Dotted line shows the transfer of the "secret process"

From the cymbal book

Original 1983 Modern drummer article:

Zildjian history final.jpg

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