In Memoriam

Robert ZildjianRobert Zildjian

July 14, 1923–March 28, 2013

by Rick Van Horn

Robert Zildjian, who died this past March 28 at the age of eighty-nine, was many things. He was an astute and aggressive businessman, a devoted and revered family patriarch, and a walking compendium of percussion-industry history.

But above all, Robert Zildjian was a genuinely unique character. Often the only thing about Bob that said “businessman” was the suit he wore at trade shows. His blunt way of speaking, thick Boston accent, and self-deprecating humor sounded more like they came from the factory floor than from the boardroom. And that’s not surprising, since Bob spent much of his youth working for his father, Avedis, at the Zildjian cymbal factory in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts.

For three decades Bob worked alongside his older brother, Armand, learning and participating in every aspect of the cymbal-making business. When their father died in 1979, the two brothers found themselves at odds over how the company should be run. Ultimately Bob was given a choice: He could take a cash buyout and leave the cymbal business, or he could take sole ownership of Zildjian’s Canadian factory—which he had established in 1968 to increase production capacity. But he couldn’t use the Zildjian name or even hint at a connection in any advertising or marketing efforts. In essence, he’d have to start all over again.

Not surprisingly, after a brief conference with his wife, Willi, and their children, Bob took the second option. Thus was born Sabian Cymbals. The brand was launched in Europe and Asia in 1982; the American market first saw its products in 1983.

I came to work at Modern Drummer in that same year, and soon I was assigned to write a feature on the then-brand-new company. I traveled to Meductic, New Brunswick, Canada, to view Sabian’s factory operation and interview Bob, the company president. I admit to being a little intimidated at the time. I was a journalist new to covering the percussion industry; Bob was a member of a family whose very name was synonymous with percussion. And I was tasked with asking him the details of how he’d had to leave that family business and start his own—a topic he could understandably have been a bit sensitive about.

It was immediately clear that Bob was anything but sensitive about that topic…or about anything else. He was eager to talk about his new company and his plans for its future. Characteristically, those plans involved making his then-upstart operation the leading cymbal company in the world. It might have seemed a little far-fetched at the time—to anyone but Bob.

From that day until the last time I saw Bob (at a breakfast meeting with him, Willi, and Fred Gretsch at the 2011 NAMM Show), I always enjoyed our encounters. I visited the factory several more times, and I observed the energy with which Bob applied himself to the ongoing development of Sabian and its products. He took particular pride in the reputation that the company rightly earned for innovation when it came to the creation of new cymbal models. He took equal pride in the people on his staff who were responsible for those innovations.

In MemoriamI also visited Bob’s summer home in Meductic—a riverside cottage just steps from the factory—where I observed his fierce devotion to his family. That devotion was an old-world tradition graphically represented by Sabian’s very name, derived from the first two letters of each of his children’s names: Sally (“Sa”), Bill (“bi”), and Andy (“an”). And I remember the pride Bob displayed when, in 2006, he turned over the reins of the company to Andy. But although Andy oversaw the day-to-day operations from that point forward, Bob was never far away. The Chairman, as he came to be known, remained keenly interested and involved in every aspect of the business. Bob may have retired, but his presence was always felt, and his personal appearances at Sabian sponsored events always drew heartfelt cheers of appreciation from drummers around the world.

The Chairman is now gone, but his legacy remains in the hearts of those who knew him, in the music performed by Sabian artists, and in the bronze of every cymbal used to create that music.