The New York Times has published an article about Zildjian, a U.S.-based cymbal manufacturer founded in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) by Armenian Avedis Zildjian (Avedis I) in the 17th century.
Zildjian was incorporated in the United States in 1929. But the company’s relationship with drummers, and drumming itself, dates back much further: 400 years to be precise, to 1618, when a secret casting process resulted in the creation of a new bronze alloy for the court of Sultan Osman II, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire.
“My father always said that the name is bigger than any one person in the family,” said Craigie Zildjian, the company’s chief executive officer (the first woman to have the job), a member of the family’s 14th generation of cymbal makers. “In other words, you have this little piece of 400 years. Don’t screw it up.”
In the early 17th century, Osman II granted the young artisan permission to make instruments for the court and gave him the Armenian surname Zildjian (meaning “son of cymbal maker”). The family set up shop in the seaside neighborhood of Samatya in Constantinople, where metal arrived on camel caravans and donkeys powered primitive machines.
Those working in Zildjian’s shop produced cymbals for the mehter — monumental ensembles with double reeds, horns, drums and other metallic percussion that belonged to the empire’s elite janissary military corps. The Zildjians likely also did business with Greek and Armenian churches, Sufi dervishes and the Sultan’s harem, where belly dancers wore finger cymbals.
In 1851, Avedis II built a 25-foot schooner to transport the first cymbals physically bearing his family’s name to London for the Great Exhibition, the first world’s fair. His brother Kerope assumed the company helm in 1865, establishing a line of instruments named K Zildjian in several sizes and thicknesses that are still prized by percussionists today.
In America other musical forms began to shape, and be shaped by, the cymbal’s evolution. Avedis III, a Boston candy maker who left Turkey before the Armenian genocide, was reluctant to take over the family business when it was thrust upon him by his uncle Aram in 1927. But he changed his mind after checking out the growing dance band scene: “I saw the possibility that even if there wasn’t a market we could create one,” he recalled in a 1975 interview with The Armenian Reporter.
The new instruments Avedis III developed and trademarked under his name had the crispness to cut through the sound of a big band. And, paired in hi-hats, cymbals took over the time keeping responsibilities from the laboring bass drum, a technique pioneered by Jo Jones of the Count Basie Orchestra.
His experimentation producing novel cymbal types — swish and sizzle, bounce and crash — would inspire a new generation of musicians to utilize a broader sonic palette. The bebop drummer Kenny Clarke led the pack by keeping a flexible, furiously paced, highly individualistic beat, probably on 17-inch Zildjian bounce cymbal. That instrument, later named a ride, became a cornerstone of modern drumming.