A Family’s 400-Year-Old Musical Secret Still Rings True
Aug. 3, 2018
Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times
The surest route to a drummer’s heart? Cymbals.
“You can have all the swirling harmony in the world,” the drummer Brian Blade said, “but only the cymbals can put you over the top of that mountain you’re trying to climb. The tension is the beauty of it, like riding a wave until you need it to crest.”
Mr. Blade, who is best known for playing with the country music singer Emmylou Harris and the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, said he thinks of his cymbals as an extension of himself, though he also gives credit for his distinctive sound to the instruments he plays: Zildjians. He has endorsed the brand for 20 years, just one in a long, diverse roster of musicians to do so.
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.”
For the 3,000 or so years before 1618, cymbals had evolved very little. The earliest evidence of them can be found on pottery fragments from Hittite Anatolia dating to the Bronze Age. Metallic percussion was long part of the military music for Turkic tribes including the Seljuks, who migrated to the Middle East in the 11th century. (Some “had horns, others pipes and timbrels, gongs, cymbals and other instruments, producing a horrible noise and clamor,” reads a description of battle during the Third Crusade.)
The sound quality of these boisterous instruments might have left something to be desired by the 17th century, an age of Ottoman musical refinement. It was then that Avedis I, a 22-year-old Armenian metal smith and aspiring alchemist, learned that mixing ample tin into copper would produce a rich, robust sound. But he faced a formidable problem. “It’s a very brittle alloy,” Paul Francis, Zildjian’s director of research and development, said. “It will shatter like a piece of glass.”
Then Avedis I made a music-altering discovery — still carefully guarded by the family — that involved forging a metal so flexible it could be repeatedly heated, rolled and hammered into the finest instruments. “He was looking for gold,” Mr. Francis said. “As far as I’m concerned, he found it.”
Osman II thought so: He 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.
“Military music was a branch of their classical music,” Walter Zev Feldman, the author of “Music of the Ottoman Court,” said. Although mehter ensembles were known in the West for playing in battle, they also performed courtly suites for its rulers, like those by Solakzade Mehmed (1592-1658), who wrote under the name Hemdemi.
Every morning before prayer, and every evening after prayer, ensembles gathered to play from castle towers, including one above the gardens of Topkapi Palace. Hand-held cymbals measuring a foot or so in diameter probably marked the rhythmic cycles, which Mr. Feldman said “are among the most complex in the world: cycles of 24, 28, 32 and even 48 beats.”
It’s no wonder that composers like Gluck and Mozart wanted to emulate a Turkish style with busy, glittering percussion. Precisely what Ottoman music they heard is an open question, though. A handful of European rulers adopted mehter ensembles or sent their kapellmeisters to Constantinople to learn the tradition, but the composers more likely were exposed, Mr. Feldman said, to “klezmorim, local Jewish musicians, in places like Prague and Berlin, who had learned the Ottoman repertoire.”
What came to be known simply as “Turkish cymbals” were assimilated by European orchestras and, in the first half of the 19th century, into new military and wind band styles that thoroughly integrated West and East. Meanwhile, the janissaries, having assassinated one too many sultans, were outlawed and executed in 1826 — as were their mehter musicians. The Zildjians lost a significant portion of their market.
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, in 1851. 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.
Those old K’s — which possess the “sound of two gladiator swords meeting,” in the words of Armand Zildjian, Craigie’s father — can be heard in the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Metropolitan Opera orchestras, among others. Gregory Zuber, the Met’s principal percussionist, said, “It’s a tradition that’s been handed down from player to player” and that can be heard in the tremendous, exposed crashes that heighten the drama of the 19th-century operas.
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.
According to Jon Cohan’s book “Zildjian: A History of the Legendary Cymbal Makers,” drum shops and catalogs in the 1920s were likely to carry only so-called Oriental cymbals, American ones made of brass and nickel silver, and the weighty K’s from Constantinople. Avedis III sought out swing drummers, like Gene Krupa, and learned that they preferred Turkish cymbals but wanted them to be thinner and more responsive — “paper thin,” as Krupa put it.
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.
“It gave you that upbeat that puts the snap in a dancer’s foot: down, chit; down, chit,” said Mr. Blade, who uses 1940s-era Avedis Zildjians in his drum kit. By the mid-1930s, celebrities including Chick Webb, Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton were coming to the Zildjian factory in Quincy, Mass., to pick out their cymbals, with help from Avedis’s fine ear.
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. Touring the factory, which now sits in a leafy industrial park in Norwell, Mass., is the drummer’s equivalent of stumbling into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” Mr. Francis, the director of research and development, said, quoting the movie, as he led the way on a recent visit.
A line of Gen16 products attempts to create an electronic cymbal that looks and feels like a real cymbal instead of a drum pad. A low-volume practice cymbal that looks like mesh is selling well among drummers in Asia who live in apartments with thin walls.
The lobby has the feel of a show room, with kits on display that belonged to Travis Barker (Blink-182), Tré Cool (Green Day) and Ginger Baker (Cream), along with a replica of Ringo Starr’s. “We all know what happened in 1964,” Mr. Francis said, referring to the British Invasion. “We had 90,000 cymbals on back order.”
A lounge gives drummers a place to try out their instruments or simply hang out while waiting for an order. Some, like Joey Kramer of Aerosmith and the famed session musician Steve Gadd, prefer to watch from the factory floor.
Metal glows hot from the furnace, and rolling machines spit out silvery pancakes of zinc-oxide-coated bronze, collected with coal shovels. Armand Zildjian modernized the factory using robots to remove the most burdensome physical labor and offer greater precision in tasks like hammering. (His younger brother Bob broke from the company 1981 and founded his own cymbal manufacture, Sabian, in Canada.)
Today, each instrument still passes through the hands of dozens of highly skilled workers. “Paper thin” is not measured by tiny calipers, but by lathe operators shaving off golden ribbons and checking to make sure their work falls within a certain range on digital scales.
The head cymbal tester, Leon Chiappini, who has worked at the factory for 57 years, listens to each one multiple times with a standard in mind and pairs them. But like drummers, no two are exactly alike.
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Intelligent, passionate, artistic.
These are just some of the words that came to John Strong’s mind when he thought of Paul Pines.
Pines, a Brooklyn native who lived in Glens Falls and developed roots and a festival in Lake George, passed away on Wednesday, June 27. Pines leaves a legacy in the North Country in the form of a jazz festival and his poetry and by bolstering the greater Glens Falls community.
Pines and Strong worked together for 35 years to set up and grow the Jazz at the Lake festival at Lake George. Throughout the years, Strong learned how special Pines’ talents were as a poet, writer, professor and psychotherapist.
Pines, 77, wrote several novels, a memoir and 13 poetry collections throughout his career and traveled all over. He was a merchant seaman in the mid-1960s near Vietnam, traveled to Mexico and Central America and loved the southern Adirondacks.
While at Lake George in 1984, he joined Strong in setting up the fall festival. Strong said the area had nothing going on at the time between the summer and winter seasons.
“We were one of the first groups to really acknowledge what a nice time of the year it is,” Strong said.
It was also during that inaugural year that Pines met his future wife, Carol. Strong said at the time Pines was back-and-forth between New York City and Lake George. He initially didn’t have plans to stay.
“It wasn’t me that kept him (at Lake George),” Strong joked.
Pines created strong roots in the area as he became a professor at SUNY Adirondack, hosted collaboration works at Glens Falls’ Charles R. Wood Theater and became a pivotal part of constructing a fall jazz festival that many mark down on their calendars.
Jazz at the Lake
Strong emphasized Pines’ ability to communicate with the artists he recruited for the Lake George jazz event. The duo would call each band or musician to help them set expectations of Lake George and create a bond with each of them.
The work was divided well by the two. Strong handled production, while Pines’ personality thrived in connecting with musicians and audiences. Pines would take the microphone for the Jazz at the Lake events and give a toss to the bands. Strong said Pines had a knack for setting up the mood for a band.
Pines would continually find new and old voices to put on another successful event, with Strong doing the background work.
“Many of these artists were either just below the radar or just coming out, and maybe a number of them are bona fide stars in the jazz world,” Strong said.
After year after year of setting up the festival, the two would find out that their traits complemented each other.
“Paul and I were really bonded over the years. We were a real team,” Strong said. “… He had the artistic vision to mold this into his take on jazz, which was very broad.”
Though Pines has passed, the 2018 Jazz at the Lake will continue. Strong does not know the longevity beyond this year’s event, however.
“We just haven’t had time to get together,” he said. “(Though) this year, we have the lineup all set and Paul has done that. Seven bands are coming September 15th and 16th. It’s hard to replace a guy who’s so passionate about the genre of jazz.”
Pines had a diverse background and was able to see the world. He matched that with his artistic looks.
Long hair, a blazer with a Panama hat and sunglasses and a strong, joyful grin, Pines did not stick with the status quo of a button-down and tie.
“He was a bohemian man,” Strong said. “He was a flat out bohemian. … He was a very cool cat.”
Strong complemented Pines in his intelligence, believing that many of his traits stemmed from it.
“He was a tremendously warm person. He had a superior intellect,” Strong explained. “His family was very well educated. Often, he had an eye out for people who affected him and might need some help. He was a professional counselor, among some of the other things he has done. He was very funny and very warm and witty.”
Strong wanted to thank the village and town of Lake George for their support of the Jazz at the Lake festival, where the duo grew from strangers to friends. To find out more about Pines, go to paulpines.com, a website that includes many of his writings, information on his books and other related info.
The Jazz at the Lake festival this fall will be at Shepard Park starting at 1 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16.
“But the impact he has made,” Strong said then paused, “it’s going to be challenging to live up to that. Just to have Paul’s insightfulness and how he conveys that to the audience, that’s going to be hard to replace.”
Funeral arrangements for Paul Pines will be handled by Singleton Sullivan Potter Funeral Home, 407 Bay Road, Queensbury. The Post-Star will publish a complete obituary at a later time.
Andrew David Kuczkowski is the education reporter. Andrew can be reached at 518-742-3354. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @ByKuczkowski.
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