Bandleader Zemarel seldom had the blues

January 03, 2000|By Lawrence Freeny

ZIM Zemarel, the late Baltimore bandleader, was a determined exemplar of the swinging Big Band sound that -- with the likes of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey -- filled night clubs, dance halls and the national radio airwaves in the 1940s.

His cheerful, enthusiastic manner, both in directing his band and in private conversations, was such that the nickname Zim (his real surname was Emil) could be truly equated with Vim.

Several interview appointments with him in his Baltimore County home in the 1970s were repeatedly interrupted by telephone callers setting dates for appearances by the band or by a smaller group of the band members. So my notes were fragmentary, requiring follow-up phone calls.

But in those visits I gained a clear perspective of Zemarel himself, his buoyant good humor and vitality.

His prescription for the band's success included commissioning new arrangements of many original Big Band "charts" of numbers popularized by Glenn Miller and others, at a cost of $500 each, sometimes $800 or more.

Many arrangements were done by his longtime pianist Carroll Skinner, who also composed "Z Zs Blues," a swinging, rousing number that could be called the band's specialty number -- like Miller's "In the Mood," Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball," or Will Bradley's "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar."

I also met Zemarel's wife, Norma, the former Norma Virginia Beck of Baltimore, a friendly, smiling woman who served us coffee in their living room. She handled business matters for the band.

Devoted to Norma, he was deeply saddened when she died in 1995, just a year after they had moved to an apartment in St. Elizabeth's Hall, at Stella Maris Hospice. He lived there until his death on Christmas Eve at age 82.

After suffering a hip fracture in a fall at Stella Maris and, after rehabilitation, the necessity of using a walker, he remained optimistic:

"I use this walker because for a while I've had trouble keeping my balance. If that balance problem was solved, I could still be leading that band!" he told me one time at lunch.

For the last several years, he appeared with the band at its annual summertime concert in the Towson at Night concert series, in the plaza of the Baltimore County Courthouse. This year he set aside his walker, stood straight and vigorously waved his baton, leading the band for one number: "In the Mood."

After relinquishing control of the band in 1994 due to health problems to Gene Bonner, lead tenor saxophonist, and Wayne Hudson, the drummer, Zemarel produced two albums: "In the Mood" in 1997 and "Swingin' on Broadway" in 1998, utilizing the master recordings in his possession.

"It was a total surprise to us when Zim did that, although he drew from the very best of our previously released albums," Bonner once recalled.

One number on the first album is "My Wife," with Zemarel singing the affectionate lyrics; music and lyrics were composed by Bonner.

Zemarel had sung "My Wife" at concerts and dances, sometimes with Norma seated near the bandstand, but it had never been recorded in an album.

He made sure it was on record, with "In the Mood," as a lasting tribute.

Lawrence Freeny is a former Sun staffer who writes from Baltimore.

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