Swinging into the millennium At 80, Zim Zemarel may have lost a step, but he still sets the tone for his beloved big band.

CATCHING UP WITH... ZIM ZEMAREL

May 31, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

As surely as racing at Pimlico, steamed crabs in the backyard or Fourth of July fireworks over the Inner Harbor, the swinging big-band sound of the Zim Zemarel Orchestra evokes summer in Baltimore.

Not to mention winter, spring and fall. Zim Zemarel is a man for all seasons -- except maybe rock and roll. He's not quite as dogmatic as the old bluesman, Mississippi Fred ("I do not play no rock and roll!") McDowell, but he still warns people booking the band for weddings: "You're not buying a rock band."

Zemarel's orchestra plays pure big-band swing, most of that the Glenn Miller variety. No rock, no rap and no Mickey Mouse music, either.

"When Guy Lombardo died," Zemarel says, "their office called me and asked me to take over the Lombardo band. I said, 'No, I couldn't play that kind of music.' "

Too "syrupy," he says.

Zemarel, 80, has been making his own decidedly nonsyrupy sound for more than 60 years now, and is as familiar to generations of Baltimoreans as the Washington Monument.

He's generally a whole lot more lively, though. But at the moment, he's stuck with a walker, recuperating from a serious hip fracture. The injury has further limited the few appearances he still makes with the band. His son Jamie, a Sinatraesque singer, had fronted it for a while, but he's now with the Washington musical satirists "The Capitol Steps." These days, drummer Wayne Hudson and sax player Gene Bonner run the band.

"The band's still together," Zemarel says proudly.

Always the band

For Zemarel, the band has always been the thing. He led his first group even before he graduated from high school in 1935.

Zemarel's bands have always been big, tight, swing dynamos enjoyable for their own music. But they've also backed up a pantheon of great singers, stars like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett, Johnny Cash and Rosemary Clooney.

"One of our first big-band jobs was with Sinatra," Zemarel recalls, at a political affair for Spiro T. Agnew when he was governor of Maryland.

"Sinatra brought all his tunes with him, his own arrangements. He treated the musicians wonderful," he says. "After the second number, he said, 'This band is good enough for me,' and he passed me a hundred-dollar bill in the palm of his hand. Which I kept."

While Zemarel's played with big stars, and recorded more than a half-dozen albums over the years, he's probably better known around Baltimore for playing weddings. His big-time and small-time worlds occasionally coincided. The band once backed Tony Bennett at a performance at a convention, then had a wedding gig at the Stouffer hotel, where Bennett was staying.

"He spontaneously sang with us at Stouffer's. The [bride] didn't know it, and it was the biggest surprise of her life," Zemarel recalls.

A Pennsylvania boy

He has been a Baltimore institution so long it seems he must be a native. The band even appears in the movie "Avalon," Barry Levinson's nostalgic meditation on Baltimore family life.

But, in fact, Zemarel is from Turtle Creek, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pa. One of seven children, his full name is Emil Fidela Zemarel. The family name was originally Zemarelli, but his father shortened it when he arrived from Italy.

"I wish he'd have left it Zemarelli," Zim says. "Nine out of 10 people think I'm Jewish. If I had a dollar for every one of them, we both could retire."

His musical career began when he was about 12 years old and started learning the guitar. He performed through high school, and was playing gigs around Pittsburgh when World War II arrived and he joined the Coast Guard.

He spent 52 months at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard yard, where he became a chief petty officer and leader of a 16-piece dance band that toured service outfits and home-front venues during the war. He also met a local girl named Norma Virginia Beck.

"I met my wife at a USO dance at Keith's Roof," he says. "Duke Ellington was playing that night. ... She lived in Hampden. She was dressed real cute. I said, 'She's for me.' "

Norma would become business manager of the band, and mother of their three children: Jean Ann, Jonathan Allen and James Anthony. All with the initials J.A.Z. -- three "jazz" babies.

They had been married 50 years when Norma died in 1995. Just before her death, she planted the tulips and irises now blooming outside the window of his living room at the St. Elizabeth's Apartments at Stella Maris Hospice.

'I hustled like crazy'

He launched the post-war Zim Zemarel Orchestra in 1946 at the Rio Restaurant in the old Congress Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

He took the baton from Sammy Kaye, the king of Swing and Sway, at the old Walnut Grove in Brooklyn, and played all the old clubs on the Charles Street strip: the Blue Mirror, the Coronet Lounge, the Chanticleer, the Spa, Doc's, the Club Charles.

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