"And talk about a salesman! " Hudson added. "He could talk his own grandmother into taking dancing lessons with someone who'd never danced before."

Big Band music a passion

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at Bonner's Perry Hall house, he and Hudson had the perfect occasion for reminiscing as they hung out in Bonner's club basement, which is a veritable shrine to the Zim Zemarel Band's long, colorful career. The two of them pored intently over a scrapbook assembled by Bonner's daughter, Sharon Nicolary, who has spent months unearthing old Baltimore Sun articles and photos of the band.

It was a the perfect time to roll out the vast repertoire of inside jokes (some printable, some not), quips and good-natured jibes the two men have developed on the grandstand since their musical paths first crossed back in the 1960s.


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"Oh my God, I don't even remember playing this show," Hudson laughed as he stared intently at one of the old black-and-white photos. "But I guess I did, since I'm in the picture." He glances at the photo again and grins at Bonner: "Hey Gene, I'd forgotten you did have hair at one time, didn't you?"

A few of the articles that Nicolary found go back even further. Her scrapbook includes a 1955 Baltimore Sun write-up about her dad and the Dixieland band he fronted in his pre-Zim Zemarel days, as a student at Mount St. Joseph Catholic High School and later at the University of Baltimore. For a while, he even had a regular slot on WAAM, one of the first television stations in Baltimore.

Bonner was just a youngster when he fell under the spell of Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, who he heard on the radio. Big Band music soon became his passion. But, unlike Hudson, he always kept a day job — mostly as an insurance underwriter — even during the Zemarel Band's golden years.

"(But) all the way through those years I usually had the horn in my mouth almost constantly," Bonner recalled. "Practice is very important."

"I never gave a darn about my day job; I just loved the music," he said.

"But I also had a very deep concern about getting too deep into the booze," he said. "And I had a good friend who chose that (full-time musical) route and more or less ended up a pauper."

Even so, the money was good up there on the bandstand when the band was in its prime, playing almost nonstop. "Gene's saxophone put all four of our kids through college," Shirley said proudly.

You can see and hear the Zim Zemarel Band in its prime in video clips from TV shows and concerts that Nicolary and her husband recently posted on Youtube. In these clips, the band looks, and sounds, smooth, confident, masterful, mellow and refined as they deliver 1940s-style big band jazz that's just about as good as it gets. One of the keys to the band's proficiency, according to Bonner, was Zemarel's penchant for recruiting both active and retired members of the U.S. Navy and Army bands.

"We were never a rehearsal-type band," Hudson said.

"That's 'cause you're so good," Shirley added.

"I realize that," Hudson said. . "Even if somebody came in with a new song arrangement, all we had to do was pass it out and run through it a couple of times, and there you go."

Do it all over the same way

But in recent years, the Zim Zemarel Band has felt the impact of a weak economy, changing demographics and shifting musical tastes. It's not cheap to mobilize, or book, such a large ensemble of talented players. At the same time, many of the band's devoted fans have gotten older and somewhat less agile on the dance floor.

Bonner says the band's present hiatus is a result of "all of the above ... These days, at weddings and things like that, a lot of people are going with deejays and they can get all their hip-hop music or whatever that way, for a lot less money. People don't want to spend the money (to book a Big Band)."

Bonner keeps his chops up by occasionally sitting in with a friend's band, Sophisticated Swing, at Player's, a nightclub restaurant near the Turf Valley Resort, near Ellicott City.

But both he and Hudson yearn for those heady times in the late 1970s and the 1980s when the "double-Z" band was "everywhere and anywhere."

"Oh yeah, I miss all that, said Hudson. "I miss the money, I miss the music. ... Not being able to do that every day is tough, because we enjoyed it so much, and we had so much fun.

"Put it this way: it was a great way to make an insubstantial living," he added with laugh. "But if I had it to do over again I'd do it the same way."

Bonner grins and nods. "It's a big change, not to be playing very much. I wish we were playing more, because, first of all, to be proficient on your instrument you have to be playing quite often. That's just the way that it is."

Gene Bonner and Wayne Hudson will be performing at Nordstrom department store, Annapolis Mall, from noon to 4 p.m., on , with the Zim Zemarel Combo, a slimmed down, five-piece version of the Zim Zemarel Band.