Philly’s Finest got into the big band business while the getting was good. Only three years after 1912, when bandmaster Lieutenant Joseph Kiefer (formerly of the U. S. Navy) started up his talented squad, he expanded its ranks to 72 musicians. He then spent the better part of the next decade riding the rising tide of American popular music.
In its first ten years, Kiefer’s band raised enough to cover their expenses and to pay $200,000 into the Police Pension Fund Association. There were the annual ticketed benefits, but the majority of the Police Band concerts were free. That unlikely business model had been in effect since 1917, when the City brought in Kiefer’s group to replace another band, whose contract officials let expire. “The Philadelphia Police Band will hold a series of open-air concerts on the northeast plaza of City Hall,” read the announcement. The new concerts would also inaugurate community singing.
“Over night the project has taken on gigantic propositions,” project leaders bragged. I all, more than 50,000 attended to hear the Police Band’s brass quartette give a brief concert before the Community Singing Association “helped to ring out the patriotic hymns and familiar songs which make up the nightly programme.”
Philadelphia’s Fire Department jumped aboard the bandwagon starting up their own group with 27 players and Kiefer moonlighting as leader. It “bids fair to become vigorous rival of celebrated police institution,” teased the Inquirer. But Kiefer’s main focus remained with the Police Band, which grew ever-busier raising funds for pensions while performing a full schedule of free concerts.
How did they do it? Whenever and wherever they played—in neighborhoods throughout the city, at the Baker Bowl at Broad and Huntingdon Streets, at the bandstand north of City Hall, or helping Philadelphians singing in the New Year on City Hall’s south apron—audiences already knew the music, they knew the words to the songs. The listening public was familiar with the Police Band’s music, and their greater repertoire having already bought, played repeatedly and memorized popular music.
Philadelphians owned phonographs—record players. And on them they spun copies of Kiefer’s compositions in Vocalian red-vinyl: On the Campus and Comrades of the Legion. From Aeolian (Vocalian’s parent company) they played his Buckeye State and The Iron Division March (dedicated to the Pennsylvania-based division nicknamed by General Pershing for valorous service in World War I.)
Kiefer and company also included in their repertoire longtime classics, also available as records: F.W. Meacham’s popular American Patrol (1885); W. H. Myddleton’s Down South. American Sketch (1901). And they performed the more contemporary, and no less antiquated, Swanee River Moon. For young folks wanting to dance a lively Fox Trot, they included Dan Sullivan’s Stealing (the chorus of which, “Stealing, stealing with your eyes appealing…Stealing, stealing, at your shrine I’m kneeling,” made clear this was not a song about pickpockets.)
In 1921, the City added free weekly dances on the Parkway to the long-popular sing alongs and concerts. These Thursday evening soirees turned out to be a smashing success. For the inaugural dance, July’s muggy weather didn’t deter 15,000 from turning out on the stretch of the Parkway between 17th and 18th, still decorated as a “Court of Honor” for an Odd Fellow convention.
“To Dance on the Parkway,” read the headline after the first magical evening. Philadelphians danced to Police Band tunes and transformed themselves into “one jostling, swaying mass of sweltering humanity.” Young dancers wanted nothing to do with the “old style Virginia reel by four couples in rural garb” intended to show “dancers what they have been missing.” They wanted live jazz, just like the recordings they owned and danced to at home.
Kiefer and the Police Band accommodated everyone as best they could throughout the free Parkway dances, performing “everything in [their] repertory, from a sedate waltz for the benefit of the older folk to the latest jazz turn for the enjoyment of the flappers.”
Not everyone would be as tolerant.
(Articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer consulted: “Police Band Will Give Daily Concerts,” August 26, 1917; “’Sing’ at City Hall to Attract Many,” September, 2, 1917; “Police Band to Give Concerts on Plaza,” September 2, 1917; “Great Community Sing Will be Held Tonight,” September 15, 1917; “Firemen’s Band out for Laurels,” September 23, 1917; “Concert Series Will Aid Police,” March 10, 1918; “To Sing New Year In,” December 31, 1918; “To Dance on Parkway, June 14, 1921; “15,000 Crowd at First Dance on Parkway,” July 8, 1921; “Police Band Concerts,” May 16, 1922.)