Bandleader George Jacob “Jay” Zainey, who led his orchestra at weekly swing-music dances in Metairie for more than three decades, died Tuesday at East Jefferson General Hospital. He was 92.
The Jay Zainey Orchestra started performing at the Jefferson Orleans North ballroom on Edenborn Avenue in 1981 and ended with a farewell performance in December. The crowds skewed toward the older end of the age spectrum, and over the years, death claimed many of them, as well as members of the band.
Zainey, who lived in Metairie, also had a weekly gig at the Treasure Chest Casino in Kenner, but that ended after Hurricane Katrina. In earlier days, he had a weekly Sunday night show on local radio and occasionally filled in at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel when the regular bandleader was off.
Zainey also performed occasionally with the New Orleans Philharmonic, including shows with jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Dave Brubeck.
He performed at the Broadwater Beach Hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, and at numerous weddings, bar mitzvahs, New Year’s Eve celebrations and political functions around the New Orleans area, his son, U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey, said.
George Jacob Zainey was born in Indianapolis, the youngest child of Lebanese immigrants. His father was a lawyer, and after he handled some legal work for a German man who taught music, he asked for music lessons for two of his sons instead of a monetary payment. Zainey was 5 at the time.
He and his brother wound up playing music in the window of a German restaurant; their payment was a hamburger and a soft drink. Later, he played in his elementary school’s marching band and started his first big band while in high school.
Zainey earned dual degrees in music and business from Butler University in Indianapolis. He later attended Loyola University’s law school.
During World War II, he served in the Navy as a bandmaster in the Pacific theater. “We would joke about it,” his son said. “He said, ‘My weapon was my saxophone.’ ”
During the war, Zainey met Pat Barberot, a fellow musician who would play an important role for him later.
Zainey moved to New Orleans in the late 1940s when a former Butler professor invited him to teach music at his music school in the city.
When Zainey arrived in town, his father suggested he get in touch with Lawrence A. Chehardy, who later would become Jefferson Parish’s assessor and a state judge. Zainey’s and Chehardy’s fathers had been friends when they both lived in Lebanon, and their sons became friends in New Orleans.
Zainey also reconnected with Barberot in New Orleans, and three decades later, Zainey presented him with a proposition. Zainey wanted to do weekly dances featuring swing- and big-band-era music at Barberot’s Metairie ballroom. He offered to perform on the normally slow Wednesday nights.
The idea started as a dare, Zainey’s son said. The bandleader told Barberot he could make the venue’s slowest night profitable for him. “I can pack you in at least 200 people on Wednesdays,” Zainey boasted to Barberot.
Despite a rainstorm, more than 100 people showed up for the Jay Zainey Orchestra’s first show in June 1981. He performed there weekly for the next 34 years, with a short pause after Katrina.
Over the years, though, Zainey’s core audience would slowly die off, as would members of his orchestra. When his singer died several years ago, Zainey took over that function too, adding that to his roles as the band’s saxophonist, musical arranger and leader.
“He loved what he was doing. He loved entertaining people; people loved him,” his son said. “He brought so much delight to everybody, and it delighted him.”
Zainey also was an insurance salesman for Sun Life of Canada, a position that gave him the financial freedom to pursue his musical interests. He remained active in the insurance business, mainly dealing with old clients, until his death, his son said.
Zainey was vice president of the New Orleans Musicians’ Union for almost 30 years. He was named vice president emeritus after his retirement.
He also was a past president of the Syrian Lebanese American Club of New Orleans.
In addition to the federal judge, survivors include his wife, Ida Mokisel Zainey; two other sons, Robert George and Michael Scott Zainey; a daughter, Noel Zainey Owens; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at noon Wednesday at St. Angela Merici Church, 901 Beverly Garden Drive, Metairie. Visitation at the church will begin at 9:30 a.m. Burial will be in Calvary Mausoleum at St. Patrick’s Cemetery No. 1. Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.