February 18th is Armand’s Birthday and we’re celebrating with a look back at his illustrious life. Read on as we reminisce, remember and celebrate Armand Zildjian, an amazing cymbal maker and friend.
Born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1921, Armand was the first Zildjian to be born and raised in America. In the European tradition, he was immersed in the family business at a very early age. As an eight year old, he witnessed his great uncle Aram’s historic visit to America. Aram had come to convince Armand’s father (Avedis) to carry on the family’s 300 year-old tradition of cymbal making.
Armand began work in the Zildjian factory under his father’s tutelage at age 14, spending his school vacations doing everything from working in the melting room and hand-stamping the familiar trademark onto finished cymbals to matching HiHats by feel and sound. He was taught the Zildjian secret process of melting alloys and became skilled in every phase of the manufacturing operation. Avedis insisted that Armand work Saturdays, school vacations and summers, but Armand never resented the long hours. “My Father came from the old country”, said Armand, “and that’s just how it was. And, I’m thankful that I was brought up that way.”
Armand always felt fortunate to have been born into a musical tradition as music became a vital part of Armand’s life. His mother, Sally, insisted that he have a musical education, and even though it was the height of the Depression, a second hand Steinway was purchased so Armand could study piano. Though at first he may have resented practicing while his friends were outside playing football, Armand grew to love playing music and soon asked for a drum kit for the basement. He later purchased a trumpet, which he taught himself to play, becoming proficient enough to join both the marching and concert bands at Colgate University.
Armand’s passion for music making continued his entire life. In 1977, when Armand became President of the Zildjian Company, he immediately expanded his office to accommodate both a piano and drum kit. He loved to break into a spontaneous trumpet solo in the middle of a workday or sit down at the drum set and piano in his office whenever the mood struck.
Armand first realized he loved the cymbal business when he was a teenager. In his own words, “I used to skip school when I knew that my father had a drummer coming in. Whatever band was in town - Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton - I was always dying to talk with them or to see them play, or watch them test cymbals.”
At 24 years old, Armand returned from the Philippines after serving in WW II and went to work the very next day in the old Zildjian plant in North Quincy, MA. He assumed full responsibility for manufacturing which allowed him the freedom to experiment and develop new sounds, something he continued to do for the rest of his life. Armand enjoyed his role in R & D, which came naturally to him. In his words, “You have to follow the music and listen to the people who are playing it and learn from them. Then you have to make your product go where they are going.”
Armand possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of cymbals and cymbal making. Combining this with his musicality, he was able to design and craft the cymbal sounds drummers were looking for. He became the conduit between the Artists and the Craftsman, with an uncanny ability to translate what drummers were hearing in their heads to a finished cymbal. Armand was the first person to adapt manufacturing techniques - shaping, hammering, lathing - to elicit certain sound qualities from the metal. No one in the industry had done this before, so it opened the door to the modern era of cymbal innovation we know today.
Max Roach marveled at Armand’s ability to give the drummer what he was looking for. Max claimed, “I could just describe what I wanted to Armand, sometimes just over the phone, and Armand would send it to me. Armand loved the cymbals as much as the drummers did,” said Max. “His eyes would light up when he pulled something out that he wanted you to try or hear. You’d have to grab the sticks out of his hand and say ‘Let me try it!’ So, it was a wonderful relationship right from the very beginning.”
Armand always treated everyone with the same respect, no matter what type of music they played or how successful they were. From the beginning, he connected with the best drummers of the day. He developed close friendships with Gene, Buddy, Louie, Shelly, Elvin and all the greats. He then passed along what he had learned from that generation of legendary drummers to help the next generation of drummers find their signatory sounds. In hindsight, Armand instinctively pioneered the first Artist Relations Program in the music industry, which became the gold standard throughout the industry. In Peter Erskine’s words, "Armand, whether by instinct or cleverness, virtually invented the drumming community we live in. Indeed, the entire music industry bears his stamp.”
During his 65-year career, Armand was awarded a number of honors, including an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music. In 1994, he was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame and later became one of the few manufacturers to be honored at the “Rock Walk” on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Despite all these accolades, Armand (like his father before him) remained a very humble man. His charismatic personality and legendary humor put people at ease, and, although he was considered to be the world’s foremost authority on cymbals, he was very approachable.
His trademark laugh and raspy voice (“Beautiful Baby!!”) born of countless hours spent “hanging” with his beloved drummers will always resonate in the minds of those who were blessed by his friendship. One drummer with only a fleeting acquaintance with Armand was moved enough by his passing to send words of condolence to the family: “I did not know him well, but those few times I was around him, I remember him treating me as a musical brother, in spite of my lack of resume”.
As Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem said, Armand could "walk with kings, but not lose the common touch".
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