Musician 'Zim' Zemarel 82, dies

A fixture locally, his band also backed Garland Bennett


Emil "Zim" Zemarel, whose big-band music was part of Baltimore's cultural, social and political life for more than 40 years, died Christmas Eve at Stella Mans Hospice of heart and kidney failure.

A longtime resident of Riderwood, he was 82, said family members.

Mr. Zemarel was well-known for his swing orchestra, the Zim Zemarel Big Band, which played at functions big and small across the metro area and beyond: weddings, sporting events, and political functions, including presidential inaugurations.

His music spanned generations. The band backed such greats as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tony Bennett and Johnny Cash. Observant music-lovers might have spied Zemarel's band in the 1990 Barry Levinson film "Avalon."

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

He called Lombardo's sound "syrupy."

Baltimoreans remember Mr. Zemarel's distinctive swing sound.

"I knew him for years. He used to play at all the functions," said former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. "When you hired him, you knew you were going to have a good reception, a good wedding, a good bar mitzvah, or whatever it was."

Mr. Zemarel hailed from Turtle Creek, Pa., a small town near Pittsburgh.

He was one of seven children whose surname would have been Zemarelli had not their father dropped the last two letters when he arrived in the United States from ltaly.

Mr. Zemarel's middle name, Fidele, translates from Italian as "faithful."

His musical career began when he was about 12 years old and learned to play guitar. He performed throughout high school, playing at spots around Pittsburgh. When the United States entered World War II, Mr. Zemarel joined the Coast Guard.

He spent four years at the Curtis Bay Coast Guard yard, where he rose to chief petty officer and became leader of a 16-piece popular music band that toured locally during the war.

Mr. Zemarel "jazzed up" the Coast Guard's band.

"He took the band and turned it into a swing band," said son Jonathan Zemarel, of Lutherville.

While in the Coast Guard, Mr. Zemarel met his wife, the former Norma Virginia Beck, a Baltimore native.

After the war, Mrs. Zemarel worked as business manager of Zim Zemarel's Big Band, booking appearances and running the office.

The Zemarels had three children: Jeanne Ann, Jonathan Allen and James Anthony.

"We all had the initials J.A.Z.," Jon Zemarel said. "For jazz."

Jon Zemarel said the family grew up loving music.

"There was music blaring through the house all the time," he said. "Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller."

Mr. Zemarel's son James led his father's band when Mr. Zemarel semi-retired, but now travels with the Washington musical satirists, "The Capitol Steps." He lives in Crofton.

The Zemarels had been married 50 years when Mrs. Zemarel died in 1995, Jon Zemarel said.

Mr. Zemarel launched the postwar Zim Zemarel orchestra in 1946 at the Rio Restaurant in the old Congress Hotel in downtown Baltimore.

He took over for Sammy Kaye, known as the "King of Swing and Sway," at the Walnut Grove in Brooklyn, and played all the popular clubs on Charles Street: the Blue Mirror, the Coronet Lounge, the Chanticleer, the Spa, Doc's and the Club Charles.

In 1949, he began working for CBS Records, promoting records and concerts in nine Eastern states.

Jon Zemarel recalled a story his father told about promoting a new song CBS executives had written off as a dud.

"He told them, 'No. It's gonna be a big one. Trust me,'" Jon Zemarel said. "And he stuck with it."

The song was "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," by Tony Bennett, who became one of Mr. Zemarel's closest friends.

Once, at a wedding at the former Stouffer hotel in Baltimore, Mr. Bennett surprised the wedding party by joining Mr. Zemarel's band for two or three numbers.

After retiring from CBS in 1979, Mr. Zemarel concentrated full time on his orchestra. At the height of the band's fame, Jon Zemarel said, Mr. Zemarel would have more than 60 of Baltimore's best musicians playing at a variety of events every weekend.

"He loved his work and could not wait for the next job to take place each week," Jon Zemarel said.

Mr. Zemarel stayed with the band until his mid-70s, Jon Zemarel said, when he turned over the baton to his longtime friend and lead saxophonist, Gene Bonner, and his drummer, Wayne Hudson. The band still performs under their leadership.

Services will be held at 1 p.m. - Tuesday at St. Mary of the Assumption Church, 5500 York Road.

In addition to his sons, Mr. Zemarel is survived by his daughter, Jeanne A. Zemarel, of Lake Tahoe Nev. three granddaughters and two grandsons.

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