By NATHAN CARSON
Cymbal-making was in Bob "RZ" Zildjian's blood. As the first generation of his family to be born on American soil, he helped shepherd in a new era of Western prosperity for the 350-year-old family brand. And when tradition got in the way of his career and aims for Zildjian, he cemented his reputation as a passionate innovator by founding Sabian -- now the second biggest cymbal manufacturer in the world.
For hundreds of years, the finest quality cymbals have been hand-hammered metal discs from Turkey. The Zildjian story originates back in the Ottoman Empire, when an alchemist by the name of Avedis Zildjian I was attempting to make gold. He struck instead upon an alloy of copper, tin, and traces of silver with brilliant resonant properties. Based on this discovery, the Zildjian cymbal company was founded in 1623. Since those days, the secret formula has been strictly handed from father to eldest son.
In 1928, RZ's father Avedis Zildjian III founded the American arm of the company in Boston, after migrating from Constantinople in 1909. While jazz and swing kept the business afloat, metal rationing during WWII threatened to shut it down. By this time, Robert was old enough to enlist, and he served as an infantryman overseas. It was a devastating experience, and in order to cope with the horrors of war after his homecoming, friends invited him to a peaceful deer-hunting trip up in New Brunswick. The scenery calmed his spirit, and soon the cymbal business called him back.
By the late '70s, rock 'n' roll had become such big business that Zildjian was on top of the world. The demand for loud, dynamic cymbals with the hand-hammered Turkish pedigree was greater than ever before. And then came the death of Avedis III, with the majority of the company willed to eldest son Armand. It was a terrible blow to brother Bob, who felt he'd been running 80 percent of the business. After two years of bitter litigation, he left the family company with the secret formula that younger brothers were not meant to have.
In 1981, Bob Zildjian founded Sabian -- a moniker comprised of the first two letters of his three children's names -- Sally, Bill, and Andy. He was 57 by this time, and it's been noted that many men would have simply retired, rather than start over again. But thanks to a sincere passion for his work and music, not to mention decades in the business, he was able to build a new empire -- this time in the solace of his new home Meductic, New Brunswick.
Today, Sabian is a powerhouse in the industry, endorsed by percussion legends such as Neil Peart, Terry Bozzio, and Billy Cobham. By all accounts, RZ inspired and made impressions on those who knew and worked with him. He treated his employees like family; many of them cut their teeth during his heyday at Zildjian, and are still hard at work keeping the Sabian brand and legacy intact since his recent passing. Robert Zildjian lost his battle with cancer last Friday, March 28, 2013, at the age of 89.
Like his contemporaries Les Paul, Leo Fender, and Jim Marshall, Zildjian profoundly affected his industry while maintaining a zeal and affection for the artistry involved. These men gave us the instruments that we use to make modern music, and their names will live on for a long, long time.
"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."