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Paul Ash of Sam Ash Music stores dies at 84

Paul Ash, left, and his older brother, Jerry

Paul Ash, left, and his older brother, Jerry Ash, of the Sam Ash Music Corp. are photographed on Sept. 9, 2002 at their corporate headquarters. Credit: Newsday / Ken Spencer

Paul Ash helped spin his family's Sam Ash Music store into a national hit with 45 locations, but more than that, he sold the love of music, presenting thousands of free concerts and bringing instruments to Central Park so children could "pet" them.

The Upper Brookville resident died Feb. 5 at age 84, one day after a heart attack that struck as he was going to work.

"He kept saying to the limo guy, 'Get me to the office' three times," said his wife, Nobuko Cobi Narita Ash. "It meant everything to him, the music."

That was quintessential Ash, president of the company his father, Sam, started in 1924 in their Brooklyn apartment, selling sheet music and repairing violins.

He wasn't even 10 when he first began helping out, 15 when he started the record department and 20 when he negotiated the lease for new space in Brooklyn because Sam Ash Music was bursting at the seams.

As a teen, he'd rush home from school, finish homework, then help at the store until 10 p.m., recalled his older brother, Jerry, 89, chairman of the company. "He took it on himself to make a record department, and before long, it was half the store," he said.

After their father's death in 1956, the brothers broke out of the borough and set up in Hempstead in 1961, a nod to Long Island, which accounted for a third of their Brooklyn business.

From then on, Ash began designing and opening new stores around the country, including one that was in Manhattan's "Music Row" on 48th Street.

"He was a guy who could do everything," said his brother, who focused on buying and selling, while Paul "did everything else."

The secret of the duo's success was keeping in tune with customers and the times, from violins to speaker cabinets. In 1980, an era when headsets had to be attached to radios and televisions, they started Samson Technologies to develop and sell wireless music devices.

Ash worked 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. during his golden years, his brother said: "He was made of iron."

But Paul Ash liked to say, "I've never worked a day in my life. I'm in the music business."

What also defined him was his quiet, sometimes secret generosity, family said. When a friend's daughter ran into tough times, he supported her financially, just as he did struggling musicians and his first wife, the late jazz singer Ada Moore, they said.

"If you were Paul's friend, you were a friend for life," his brother said. "Being around him made you feel good."

Even days before his death, he'd make his regular trip to the post office to collect the Sam Ash Music mail, his brother said.

"He was going to pick up tubs of mail -- imagine at his age -- tubs of mail early in the morning and sort them so when the clerks came in, it was all ready for them," his sibling said.He met his second wife in 1973 at a Queens jazz club and offered to drive her to her Manhattan home, saying "it's on my way," recalled his wife, who goes by Cobi Narita Ash. Unbeknownst to him, she knew he lived in Queens, she said.

His music patronage deepened after meeting her, the founder of the Universal Jazz Coalition, which set up festivals and helped musicians.

The two created the long-gone Jazz Center of New York in Manhattan in 1983, drawing greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, but also giving young musicians a platform. He also funded Sunday big-band concerts in Central Park and fought to save jazz radio station WRVR-FM.

Each year, Ash would set up the "Musical Instruments Petting Zoo" in Central Park so children could try them out, his family said.

But Paul Ash never played an instrument.

"He didn't want to," said his brother, of Old Westbury. "He had a couple lessons in the trumpet, didn't care for it. That was it."

Ash is also survived by his sister, Marcia Ash Abrams of California. Donations in Ash's name may be made to City Harvest.

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