In Memoriam

Herb Brochstein

Herb Brochstein

by Lauren Vogel Weiss

Irvin “Herb” Brochstein, the founder of Pro-Mark Drumsticks, passed away this past January at the age of eighty-five. A native of Houston, Texas, Brochstein moved to Chicago to study with PAS Hall of Fame member Bobby Christian at his School for Percussion. While in the Windy City, Herb met Buddy Rich and began a lifelong friendship.When he returned to Houston, Brochstein opened his first drum studio, in his house on Chenevert Street, next door to his childhood home. “One day in 1956,” remembers daughter Bari Brochstein-Ruggeri, “Elvis Presley, who was playing at a club in nearby Pasadena, came over to buy his drummer, D.J. Fontana, a drumset. My father, being a big band jazz player, thought he was a hillbilly! Elvis didn’t like any of the sets Dad had on display but noticed his personal Gretsch set in the dining room. Elvis paid him cash and took the drums. A couple of months later, Dad opened up Life magazine, and the centerfold picture was Elvis, D.J., and the band on The Ed Sullivan Show—featuring Dad’s old drumset, complete with the unshaven calfskin head on the front of the bass drum.”

Brochstein’s studio grew into a full-line store, Brochstein Music, which sold instruments to schools across southeast Texas. Herb continued to teach during the day and play in a big band almost every night. During the ’50s, he played with saxophonist Ed Gerlach and also formed his own big band, the Gulf Coast Giants of Jazz.

Also in the ’50s, Brochstein came across a pair of handmade oak drumsticks from Japan. After tracking down their origin, he confirmed a deal—with nothing but a handshake—with Tat Kosaka and began importing and selling those Japanese white oak drumsticks through Pro-Mark in 1957. The name, based on “the mark of a professional,” was also a reference to his two daughters: Pro for Bari, who wanted to be a professional, and Mark for Marka. The business grew into one of the largest drumstick companies in the world, selling its products in more than 110 countries. Brochstein would send instructions to the factory in Japan—make this model thinner here, make this one thicker there—to create the Pro-Mark line.

“Our dad was a true pioneer in the industry,” son Maury Brochstein says. “Being a drummer, he was concerned that the quality of drumsticks available during the late ’50s and early ’60s was subpar, so he decided to focus his attention on making the finest-quality sticks in the world. I would consider my dad and Joe Calato Sr. [inventor of the nylon-tip drumstick, manufactured as Regal Tip] as the true pioneers in the drumstick industry.”

As sales increased, mainly by word of mouth, Brochstein soon expanded his Houston business to include manufacturing facilities, and he added hickory and maple sticks to the now-famous oak models. Mallets, brushes, and other percussion products soon followed. Pro-Mark was the first American drumstick company to market sustainable Japanese Shira Kashi oak sticks, in its modern 90,000-square-foot facility, which used state-of-the-art machinery. The family-run business was purchased from then-president Maury Brochstein in 2011 by D’Addario & Company and continues to operate from its Houston location.

“[Herb’s] family was important to him,” adds Bari Brochstein-Ruggeri, who worked at Pro-Mark for nearly two decades, from reception to sales. “But he always had time and a place for drummers, both the famous and the not-yet famous. Drummers from all over the world were part of Herb Brochstein’s extended family, and he passed that caring and respect on to two generations of his own family.”

Liberty DeVitto, a longtime Pro-Mark endorser and the drummer for Billy Joel for three decades, recalls his old friend. “Herb was a giant. He shaped and changed the drumstick industry forever, and his legacy will continue to live on for future drummers everywhere. Pro-Mark was family, and that’s why I proudly use Herb’s sticks each and every time I play. He created a company that didn’t act or feel like a company. I spent hours listening and learning from Herb and will miss him.”

Brochstein was featured as a member of the Percussion Originators Ensemble—along with Roy Burns, Vic Firth, Don Lombardi, and Modern Drummer founder Ron Spagnardi—at the 1997 MD Festival. (A video clip of the performance can be seen on YouTube; search for “Percussion Originators Ensemble.”) He may even have been playing with his longtime favorite stick, the wood-tip Texas hickory 5A, or a more recent favorite, the 733 model designed by jazz great Michael Carvin.

“My experience as a drumset player has been channeled directly into the creation of new drumstick designs,” Brochstein said on the Pro-Mark website, “and it has given me a common language with which to talk to drummers about their own design ideas.” Sticks made by a drummer, for drummers.