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Jerry and Sammy Ash of Sam Ash Music Corp.:2019 Recipients of MMR’s Annual Don Johnson Industry Service Award

Christian Wissmuller • Don Johnson AwardsJanuary 2019 • January 23, 2019

Each year since 2009, Musical Merchandise Review has singled out an individual (or, occasionally, individuals) to receive the Don Johnson Industry Service Award – an honor created to celebrate and memorialize the life and legacy of our former editor. The award spotlights those within MI who are going the extra mile to not only succeed in business, but also to excel as people by working to better their communities and support the culture of music and music education.

This year we are proud to celebrate Sam and Jerry Ash of Sam Ash Music Corporation for their accomplishments. 10 year-old, Austrian-born Sam Ash (né Ashkynase) arrived in the United States in 1907, and would later found what is today by far the largest family-owned MI retail operation in the country.

Surviving the Great Depression, World War II, cultural shifts, Vietnam, multiple moves and expansions, Sam Ash Corp. has never wavered in its commitment to musicians, the MI industry, and their communities.

Patriarch Sam’s first son, Jerry, and his grandson, Sam (Sammy) – along with the rest of the Ash family – continued and built upon the legacy that began in Brooklyn in the 1920s.

While officially “retired,” Jerry and his wife Berenice remain actively connected to both the business and their community. Company COO Sam lives with on Long Island with his wife Rachel and their two sons, Alex and Jason, and – of course – Nellie, their dog. The world of MI and the areas across the nation in which Sam Ash Music has a footprint have benefitted greatly from the efforts of these two individuals.

Congratulations on being selected as the joint-recipients of this year’s Don Johnson Industry Service Award.

Sam & Jerry Ash: First, we would like to thank our personal and business families for giving us the resources to be able to serve the industry and communities that we love. We are also quite honored to win, of all awards, the Don Johnson award – a person we both admired in this industry. He was one of the greats.

Absolutely agreed. Can you both talk briefly about your childhoods? More specifically, what first drew you to music? Sam was a violinist – I know that. Were either of you a player? Were you fans of any specific styles of music or any artists?

Sam Ash: My childhood was all about music. My father was both a jazz and classical music buff, so we grew up listening to that a lot. Broadway was also one of the house staples. We listened to a lot of Latin music in my Dad’s car on Sunday mornings on WRVR Riverside radio. My mother was buying the books and sheet music, so in her car it was always the Top 40. Richard [Ash, Sam’s brother] was my biggest influence in music. He introduced me to real rock and roll and great guitar players. I started playing guitar at around 14, and my dad gave me my first new guitar when I was 16. Today I am more of a collector than a player, but I am pretty good at that. I started off as a sax player, but girls didn’t dig sax players – the age old story.

Jerry Ash: I had no talent – none. I could never play by ear, I could never memorize anything. I had to look at the music and I would always make mistakes. I had a little band, though. We played in the mountains for two summers. The first summer was no problem because the band consisted of twins who were the sons of the owner of the little bungalow – the little hotel, a drummer, and me. The second summer we were really bad and in the middle of the year they fired us.

Both of you grew up surrounded by music and the MI retail business Can you talk about Sam and Rose’s early experiences in what eventually became Sam Ash Music Corporation?

J: This was 1924 when they bought the place, so around 1925 radio came in, so that was a total bust. They started to try to sell the instruments. There wasn’t that much business. My mother and father took care of everything. My father came here in 1903 at the age of 10. My mother, coincidentally, came in at the age of 3 that same year. By the age of 17, my father was totally immersed in the violin. He started teaching, then he learned how to fix them, then began to sell them and gave up his job to pursue music. He also became a band leader. He would go to the various wedding halls around the area and say, “Recommend me if people come in and want a violinist and I’ll throw you a few bucks.”

My father had a lot of friends who were musicians – violinists primarily. Before this, he was a rival of theirs; every one of them was teaching and playing. He told each one of them, “I’m giving up playing. Be my customer.” Now what did he have to sell? Next to nothing. The big thing these teachers wanted was sheet music because they all taught. “What do you carry in sheet music?” They didn’t know. If a guy came in and said, “I want a Hanon book for piano,” they’d buy two – put one in stock and sell the other.

Eventually, they built up a very nice and comprehensive sheet music business which was a petty thing because a guy would come in and want three or four pieces of music and you’d go to this draw here, this draw there, et cetera – and you’d maybe have a $2 sale. They had hardly any instruments worth selling.

What’s your first memory of realizing that you lived in a house that was also a music store?

J: We lived in three rooms behind the store. Later on, we took a second apartment. One of the things that’s indelible in my memory is the landlady came around for the rent and my father gave her a check and said, “Hold it for two weeks” because he had no money to cover the check and needed to make the money for it. When Sam played a job on a Saturday night for a wedding, he would dress up in a tuxedo, blacken his mustache, and go. My five-foot tall mother was alone in the store until 11:00 at night. This was life in those days.

What was Sam like?

J: My father had a personality that just beamed. He was always smiling people loved him. Everybody called him Sam and everyone loved him. Since it was the Depression and so many were out of work the store became a hanging/meeting place for all of the local musicians. If you came in more than twice you had a nickname. I have an Olds Mendez trumpet which a man gave me about 4 years ago. He was a retired school principal. As a kid he brought his first trumpet from us then when he wanted the second one he bought it from Sam personally the guy wanted me to have the trumpet provided I didn’t sell it. He wanted It to return home. It in my office.

He was a talented musician and band leader. He had several bands like the “Sam Ash Society Club Orchestra” and they would play all over Brooklyn and in the summers in the Catskill Mountains.

This is another thing, Fred Gretsch, the original Fred Gretsch said to my father, “If you want to make a living you have to get off your ass and deliver.” So he bought a car, a used car. I remember him learning to drive and the car stuttering along because it was a shift car.

At what age were each of you first working in the family business? Can you also talk about the evolution of your roles at Sam Ash Music?

S: When I grew up it was during The Beatles [heyday], so everything was exciting – everything was changing every single day. I worked on Saturdays as a kid, so I would get to see all of the past week’s goodies all at once. I am a gear hound – I still can’t help it. One day we had a few drums in stock and the next day Ludwig was our biggest supplier. It was a real education because my father liked to try all new gear and trends – always be first. He would listen to his customers and if they were asking for a particular brand he would write a letter to the company to get the line and most times he did. We were the first into synthesizers, we developed PA systems back when they didn’t exist. We would stock everything and stock it deep. My father and uncle felt if our customers wanted some of any particular product, we should have it in stock for their convenience. We still follow that mantra as best as we can in today’s market.

I started out working on Saturdays from an early age. There was no daycare and both of my parents worked at the business. I spent most Saturdays working (terrorizing, more likely) in the basement of the Hempstead store and the warehouse. When I started getting paid at the age of 15, I started wondering out onto the sales floor. I remember my first sale, it was a Gemeinhardt flute for $220. I couldn’t believe that someone would trust the opinion of a kid with $220! I did know what I was talking about, but still… just like my brothers, I started at the bottom – working stock, cleaning bathrooms, and generally helping out. Over time, I got onto the sales floor, then to assistant manager, then I ran my own store in White Plains, New York.

J: As a kid, the first thing I actually did to be productive was to get on the subway with a list of various music houses like G. Schirmer, Carl Fischer, and many others, with a list of what we needed from them and a wad of singles. We had no credit.

How old were you at that time, Jerry?

J: I was in high school. Maybe 16 or so. We started stocking instruments when I was a kid. My first sale was after I came out of the army. First of all, we had no brands to begin with. We would buy some instruments. The reason we had Jean Baptiste, by the way, was because jobbers ran the musical industry in those days – not the manufacturers like Selmer or Gibson. Jobbers ran it. If you wanted a saxophone or clarinet you would go to these jobbers. France was one of the places you would get the instruments from. There was no Japan, there was no China, there was nothing coming from the Far East. So we would get trumpets from France, clarinets from France (like Buffet, Selmer), and the one brand my father was dying to get was Selmer. I’ll give you a little antidote about that. Selmer sax was the sax to get. Before the war, most people would buy them from Selmer in Manhattan. They had their own store and Conn had their own store in Manhattan and Beaucher was sold through a jobber through “New York Band.” Anyway, my father had a customer who was also a friend who wanted to buy a Selmer sax. They got on a subway, and he and my father and went to the Selmer Company. My father got a discount as a dealer. This guy gave my father a $5 commission and they came back. He made $5 on the sax going to and from New York – a nickel each way on the subway – so he made $4.90. Leaving, of course, my mother in the store alone at the time.

During the war there were no saxes or anything coming in, but he wanted Selmer line so badly. The Selmer Store was still in Manhattan run by a guy named Hank Bennett. So they sold radios, little things – whatever they had to sell he would buy, so he would be recognized when instruments started to come for that. After the war, when I was in the business for a while, no one in Brooklyn had much.

Former company president Paul Ash passed away in February of 2014. Sam, can you talk a little about your uncle Paul’s impact on your career?

S: Paul was one of my mentors. He and my Dad helped build a fantastic business for all of us – not just our families. It was Paul who started the giving concept for schools and institutions, which when he passed went to me. I learned a lot of how to give back from him. He passed way too soon.

Of course, the family tradition continues: Can you talk about the involvement of the younger generations at Sam Ash?

S: Well, it’s 2019 and the fourth generation is fully in place. My two oldest – Ben and Max – and Richard’s two oldest all have important positions in the organization. Ben, my oldest, oversees all of the social media, clinics and shows, and engagements. Adam, Richard’s oldest, is the Northeast regional manager and his brother Derek is the liaison between promotions, manufacturers, and the buyers setting up the agenda. Max, my second, is employed full time as a sales manager in the NYC store, but right now he is still also chasing his writing and comedic passions.

J: I am so proud when I come to the office and I get to see so many sons and grandsons all under one roof. It makes it very easy to keep up with them.

These days Jerry and Bernice are in full retirement. Every weekend they go out to their apartment in NYC and see movies, show’s, and Jerry’s favorite, the ballet and the opera. They also tend to give to many of these venues as well. The Metropolitan Opera, the various NY Ballet Companies and the NY Symphony Orchestra. These are some of my favorite charities. “I feel like I’m giving back a lot than just the price of admission. They need outside support”

There have been so many milestone moments for your organization and your family – so may famous customers and so many stories. Can you describe a few such moments that stick out as having been especially meaningful for you?

S: I can think of a few: Several years ago we were honored by Mayor Bloomberg who decreed that June 23 is Sam Ash Day in New York City, which was a special day for the whole family; Opening on 48th street for the first time. The store was 17 feet wide, a hundred feet long, and it held everything – brass, winds, drums, guitars, audio. I mean everything. It was tight, but we had arrived on the block; The day that Stevie Wonder started playing in the window of our (then) 48th street location and shut down the whole south side of the street. And it continues. Right now, for example, we are preparing for our 95th anniversary celebration

And there have been some significant store openings, lately. Last year we had a successful opening with our first store in Houston, a former Hermes space. This year have just completed a move of our Torrance [California] location. The old location was too cumbersome and big to run efficiently, so when we had to option to get out and into a better space we took it. Unlike the old location, this one has lesson rooms and a lesson program from the start. It also has on site repairs and an expanded guitar department. Since it is a smaller store, it is much more manageable and has a far better vibe. The customer response was even better than we had hoped.

As of the writing of this article we will have opened our newest location in Jacksonville, Florida. This is a 16,000 square foot former George’s Music. We needed to do some renovations to accept the greatly expanded inventory that a typical Sam Ash Music would carry. Since we have a Guitar Center directly across the street, we have to go in with both barrels loaded. We expect great things out of this location. We even had a preopening sale – a Cannonball Tenor!

It’s, of course, quite an accomplishment to be the largest family- owned MI retailer, but Sam Ash is also widely known and appreciated for your many charitable and altruistic endeavors. Can you talk about why you feel compelled to give back to your community and what it means to be able to do so? Specifically, in the area of music and music education advocacy, why do you feel it’s so important to support and celebrate the culture of music making?

S: I, for one, have children with special needs – under the Autism spectrum – so that has gotten to be very personal to me. There is a direct correlation between Autism Education and Music Education. I have seen first-hand the positive effects of early intervention and musical introduction. I was honored to be named the “T-off for Autism’s” 2013 Honoree and we raised a record number of donations that year, I am very proud to say. Several manufacturers joined in and donated gear, though I ended up buying most of the guitars!

Are there any current or “on the horizon” initiatives or projects in the field of music advocacy that Sam Ash is (or will be) involved in that you’d like to share with our readers?

S: I was very fortunate to have been chosen by NAMM and NAMMU to represent them in Brazil this year and talk to many dealers and educators in Sao Paolo at the “Music Show” that Daniel Neves produced – what a wonderful experience. There is so much going on down there, it’s incredible how they have created this robust industry combatting all of the corruption, taxes, and duties imposed. I spent some time on their “Music Row” and it was very exciting to see so many dealers right on top of each other. It reminded me of 48th St. in its heyday.

One of my functions in the company is that I am in charge of corporate donations. I give quite a few gift certificates and some cash to schools and institutions throughout the year. To date, our biggest donation was a check to the American Red Cross for $25,000 for victims of Hurricane Maria. As a company we were very fortunate, but we knew many who weren’t. I keep in touch with David Wish and his fantastic Modern Band Program. One day we will get involved – sooner than later These days Jerry and Bernice are in full retirement. Every weekend they go out to their apartment in NYC and see movies, shows, and Jerry’s favorite, the ballet and the opera. They also tend to give to many of these venues as well.

J: I have a love affair with New York City. I want its institutions to thrive, so I give to the various entities – Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Museum, other museums, Carnegie Hall – and I give a lot…. I reached a point in life where I had a few bucks and I felt it is important to help other people. It’s not right just to hoard it, so I take a certain amount of money every year and I support a number of organizations combating hunger. To me it is a crime that in this country you can walk out of a restaurant carrying leftover food home because you can’t eat it all – and yet there are people hungry, starving. There are kids who go to school with no breakfast, no lunch. And schools that have no funds to provide food for them. It’s a crime. So I like to give to causes that address that.

Do you give to any music-specific organizations that you support besides Lincoln Center?

J: Ah, the Philharmonic and I give to the Met (Metropolitan Opera) and also to the New York City Ballet, but most of it is for hunger and to Jewish charities: the Jewish National fund and also UJA which is United Jewish Appeal, which gives to dozens of different charities. Now, maybe I am crazy, but I have too rare a memory of what happened to the Jews in Europe and I feel that it could happen here.

Any final thoughts on the importance of continued advocacy and support for music education?

S: I am a huge believer in NAMM. I think that what Joe, Mary, and the whole team are doing driving more attention towards music advocacy and music in the schools is having a great impact. They have great initiatives that any dealer can get behind. As a company we are continuing to expand our music programs around the country. A majority of our stores have been converted to have Learning Centers inside of the locations. I believe we will hit 120,000 lessons for the very first time. We have seen the importance, first-hand. With all of the budget cuts and programs closing, we are working closer with the schools than ever before. We allocate a majority of our gift certificate program to PTAs and public schools for fundraisers and tricky trays. We try to help on the grass roots level as much as we can. We feel it is our responsibility. School bids are another way to help – you make so little it is almost a form of charity!



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