Perry Hall musician keeps Zim Zemarel's Big Band sound alive

It takes a Big Band sound to battle the disco, punk, thrash rock, heavy metal and country-pop now dominating national soundtracks.

But that's exactly what the Zim Zemarel Band has done in the greater Baltimore area for the better part of 50 years.

And even though Zemarel himself died in 1999, at age 82, his former band mates Gene Bonner, 77, of Perry Hall, and Wayne Hudson, 68, of Pasadena, are still carrying the torch for the band, and for Tommy Dorsey- and Benny Goodman-style 1940s Big Band music itself.

They are also quick to admit that, because of the whimsies of changing musical tastes and the rising cost of booking a crackerjack 15-to-20 piece Big Band, the full Zim Zemarel Band isn't nearly as busy anymore as it was in its glory days in the 1970s and 1980s.

These days, more often than not, Bonner and Hudson perform in smaller configurations of the original band, such as the three-to-eight-piece Zim Zemarel Combo, the four-man Zim Zemarel Dixieland Band and the five-piece Bay Field Brass Band.

But throughout the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s Zemarel, Bonner, the band's saxophone/clarinet player and business manager, and Hudson (who plays drums and serves as sound man and road manager) seemed to be everywhere and anywhere, often playing three, four or more well-paying gigs in a weekend.

Zemarel "was quite an outstanding guy," said Bonner, who joined the Zim Zemarel Band in the 1960s and, along with Hudson, took over the band at Zemarel's request when the bandleader's health began to fail.

"When Zim walked into a room it just exploded," added Hudson, a longtime drum and percussion teacher at McDonogh School. "He was the life of the party; he just had that way about him."

'So many places, for so many people'

Year after year, Zemarel and his band were fixtures at the Baltimore City Fair, the Maryland State Fair, the annual Dundalk Heritage Festival and at swank Preakness parties and upscale weddings and birthdays at posh settings such as the Baltimore Hilton and the Baltimore Country Club.

Time and time again, William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore City's former mayor and, later, Maryland's governor, called upon the band to provide the sounds at political fundraisers, receptions and grand openings at the Maryland Science Center, the Baltimore Arena and Memorial Stadium.

It was Zim and his boys who played at the official opening of the Baltimore Museum of Industry in 1981, and in 1971 at the new visitors center at what was then Friendship International Airport. The band even accompanied the Disney on Ice extravaganza a time or two when it swung through Baltimore.

Along the way, the band recorded a half dozen albums (some for CBS Records, where Zemarel served for years as a regional promotion director) and performed in a pair of Barry Levinson movies, "Avalon" and "Park Heights."

"For our scene in 'Avalon,' we were there all day and all night, for take after take of the same thing," Hudson recalls. "It was brutal, man."

More recently, Bonner had a cameo on the TV series "Homicide," playing saxophone in the New Orleans-style funeral procession for the character, Crosetti.

"That was a lot of fun," Bonner said.

And when touring pop and comedic stars such as Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Cab Calloway, Mel Torme, Red Skelton, Al Martino and Jack Jones appeared at The Lyric or the old Morris Mechanic Theater, the Zim Zemarel Band was frequently recruited as the backup band. They also backed Gladys Knight and the Pips and The Temptations at Ocean City's annual Sun Fest.

"They played so many places, for so many people, it was amazing," says Shirley Bonner, Gene's wife of 55 years, who met her future husband at Mount St. Joseph High School when she was 17. "They went everywhere."

Bonner and Hudson agree that the Turtle Creek, Pa.-born Zim Zemarel was one of a kind, and the tireless dynamo who drove the band's success during in those heady days. More than a decade after Zemarel's death, his former band mates still speak of him with fondness and a slight sense of awe.

"Zim just knew how to treat the guys in his band and how to get the best out of us all," Bonner said. "He knew who the best players were, and he got them. We had fun, and great camaraderie."

"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.

"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.

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