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Although he started learning the violin at the age of 4, Zentner switched to trombone and won a college scholarship for his playing ability. In the beginning, he was a classical musician, but he moved into more commercial music after playing on a session with Andre Kostelanetz. He joined Les Brown's big band in 1940, then moved on to work with Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey.
He settled in Los Angeles during the war to raise his family and worked in the studio system. From 1949 to 1955, he was on the staff of MGM, working on such films as "Singing in the Rain" and "A Star is Born." He wanted to lead his own band, though, and he got a contract with Liberty Records in 1959. At a time when most big bands had withered up and died, Zentner staffed a full-sized swing ensemble and took it on the road. Working colleges as well as the usual ballrooms and clbus, the band succeeded in keeping a steady stream of gigs going. At one point during this period, he claimed to have played 178 one-night stands in a row.
Zentner not only made a go of his enterprise, but garnered both commercial and critical awards. His band won 13 straight Downbeat polls as best big band and Zentner himself was picked as the top trombonist in Playboy's Jazz Reader's Poll. In 1961, a Bob Florence-arranged twist version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River" reached the top 40 pop charts, won the Grammy Award as Best Instrumental Number, and became his signature tune. The next year, he and Florence collaborated with Martin Denny on Exotica Suite, a big band setting of Les Baxter compositions. He switched labels briefly, releasing three albums on RCA in 1965, but returned to Liberty soon thereafter.
Even Zentner couldn't fight the odds against a touring big band, though, and in 1965, he moved to Las Vegas and was hired to open the Tropicana Hotel's 500-seat lounge, the Blue Room, playing behind Mel Torme. In 1968, he began the musical director for the "Folies Bergere," one of Vegas' longest-running floor shows. Once again, though, he couldn't resist the lure of the road, and he formed another touring group, this time working cruise ships and retirement communities in addition to colleges, clubs, and casinos. You can hear this band in action on the 1996 CD, Road Band. "While trombonists were not known much for their longevity in the business, Si was an exception," recalled Las Vegas Sun columnist Joe Delaney. "He was even playing well to the end of his career." Although battling leukemia the last two years of his life, Zentner stayed active, performing up to six months before his death.
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