Crash of the cymbals

CymbalsCymbal maven Bill Zildjian talks about a family secret, hundreds of years of meticulous production, scheming in the Jazz Age and his friendship with Jeff "Tain" Watts. 

By Gareth Anderson '19

Bill Zildjian’s family history is enshrined in cymbal making: His ancestors founded both the Zildjian and Sabian cymbal companies. I had the chance to chat with Zildjian about his experiences in the music industry ahead of a conversation and clinic he is moderating at Harvard on Nov. 8 at Leverett House Library Theater with his friend, the jazz drummer and Grammy Award-winner Jeff Watts, who is in residence this week as a guest artists at Harvard Unversity. In addition to his conversation and open clinic with student musicians on Nov. 8, Watts will perform with Harvard Jazz Bands on Nov. 11 at Lowell Lecture Hall. The conversation/clinic is free and open to the public. The concert is ticketed. For more information on both, click here.  

Bill Zildjian
Bill Zildjian
Your family has an extensive history in producing cymbals. When did the Zildjians first start creating cymbals
The history goes back to my Turkish ancestors from hundreds of years ago. Zil means “cymbals”, dj means “smith”, and ian means “son of.” Our last name literally means “son of a cymbal maker.” Cymbal making emerged from shield makers, who found out that those bronze pieces were loud, and they began experimenting with the bronze.

The process of cymbal making was passed down to each generation of your family. How important has family been for the history of Zildjian cymbals?
Funny enough, cymbal making used to not be a big deal. If you were in the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1800s, you would send a guy down in a stage coach to Istanbul, where you would go to the local market and ask, “Where is the cymbal maker?” – and they would probably find one of my ancestors in a stall at the market place selling rugs or furniture. My ancestor would create one batch of cymbals for the orchestra player, and then go right back to his everyday job. It really was a cottage industry.

Your family immigrated to Massachusetts, where the Zildjian company was founded by your grandfather. How did that happen?
My grandfather immigrated through Ellis Island, and started selling lemonade in Quincy, Massachusetts. He had a great-uncle back in Istanbul who wanted him to run the family cymbal making business. Really, credit goes to my grandmother who convinced him to take up the trade. He created a cymbal shop in his garage and took advantage of the birth of the Jazz Age.

Why was jazz important to the work of your grandfather?
Jazz was increasing in popularity during the 1920s and ‘30s. My grandfather and great uncle were trying to figure out what jazz players really wanted for cymbals, so they went to the Statler Hotel in Boston, where all the big jazz bands played. During an intermission, my grandfather brought a suitcase filled with cymbals up to the drummer on the bandstand, and said “Excuse me sir, but I’m a new drummer and I’ve got these cymbals in this suitcase, and I was wondering if you could pick out the ones for the
Jeff Watts
Jeff Watts
kind of music you play.” The guy looked at him in total disdain, looked at some of the cymbals, and turned to by grandfather and said “Listen kid, don’t mess with this crap. Just buy yourself a Zildjian.” From there, things really got started for the company, and my grandfather began to collaborate with jazz heavyweights from New York.

What is unique about Zildjian cymbals?
The bronze that is used in cymbals has 20 percent tin in it, which is more musical than your typical bronze, but also more brittle, unless you use our family’s secret process which we used on our cymbals.

Ah yes, the secret process. Care to reveal more?
A long time ago, my father was on a tour at the pyramids in Egypt and he learned that in the Bronze Age, bronze chisels were used to carve granite, and no one really knows how they got the bronze hard enough to cut granite. The hardness is the key to making quality cymbals. We know how the bronze was made.

You’re very involved in the music business, where there is constant innovation. What innovations have been notable to you?
The biggest change that I lived through was drumsticks. I remember going to Wurlitzer on Newbury Street when I wanted to buy a couple pairs of sticks, and you had to find individual sticks that were not warped. Now you can get sticks of absolute quality, not warped, straight out of the box. Cymbals have gone through the same evolution; cymbals now are coated with coatings and have better quality control.

Let’s talk about the event on November 8 that you are moderating. Where did your friendship with Jeff Watts develop?
I was working backstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, when Wynton Marsalis’ band was about to go on. There was nothing like Marsalis’ act since Miles Davis. It was a terrific concert to watch. After they come off the stage, I ran back to the lounge area and wanted to get in touch with Marsalis’ drummer Jeff Watts, but the band was being mobbed by fans. I had just enough time to lean in for 10 seconds and give Jeff my card, and he was whisked away. Three months later, I got a phone call and it was Jeff, who wanting to come visit our factory in New Brunswick, and he became one of our first endorsers.

You’re moderating a discussion at Harvard. Why is jazz so important, especially on college campuses?
Educational institutions have been able to step in and make sure jazz survives. Colleges are patrons of jazz, and can maintain the heritage of its old tradition. There is an interesting and lively source of tension between colleges and jazz: jazz wants to have its traditions, but it remains fresh on campuses. Jazz has long term value; it’s not just heritage music, and there will come a time when people will recognize the value in it.

What do you find most exciting about being involved in the music industry?
Musicians! Musicians are the most interesting of all, and constantly creating stuff. Musicians are bilingual: They speak music as well as their native tongue. Musicians have a stimulated, creative mind and these guys have other interests and interesting outlooks on just about everything. Musicians could save the world if they were given half a chance, if only they could get up before noon.