The Denver Junior Police Band, once plagued by scandal, has returned after an eight-year hiatus and is again trying to keep kids off the streets by getting them out there pounding the pavement as a marching band.
Originally struck up in 1937, the band grew to be more than a diversion for bored adolescents. By the Sixties, it had grown into an accomplished musical outfit that was invited to play in several gubernatorial and three presidential inauguration ceremonies.
Jack Wyatt, now 71, recalls the early days of the band; he joined up in 1937 at age twelve. "Our main competition back in those days was the Highlanders Boys Band," Wyatt recalls. "They were more of a military outfit, carried rifles and all that, and we'd go up against them in Central City and Armistice Day parades. While they looked like the military, our uniforms were patterned exactly after the Denver Police uniforms. We even had badges and holsters with little silver cap pistols." Wyatt credits the band with teaching him to play the drums, and to this day he performs with several local outfits. "Playing still keeps me out of trouble," he laughs.
While the band was adept at keeping its young members out of trouble, overzealous parents and police supervisors got caught up in a scandal that eventually led to the band's demise in 1987.
The troubles began in 1983, when it was revealed that some people involved in running bingo games to raise funds for the band were being paid out of the proceeds--a violation of state bingo laws. Two police officers affiliated with the program were subsequently suspended. There was also a struggle a few years later between the parents and the Police Protection Association (which oversaw the band) over who should be in charge of the group. Further investigation into the matter led acting police chief Tom Coogan to declare that it was "unclear who's in control of the organization" and insist that new bylaws be written to govern the band. He placed the majority of the decision-making duties in the hands of the PPA, but the band was ailing. Even though the conflict was resolved in March 1985, the band folded two years later because of funding woes.
As a result, many Denver students who wanted to play in a band program were left out in the cold. "Fifteen years ago the Denver Public Schools had full-time music programs in all elementary schools," says Steve Gonzales, DPS's supervisor of arts and physical education. "Today, only 14 out of 81 elementary-level schools have instrumental-music programs." While most of the area high schools still have bands, Gonzales says, younger kids are hurt by the lack of early band opportunities that the Junior Police Band provided in the past.
The band might never have had an encore if not for Tom Moxcey and the Old Chicago restaurants. Moxcey, whose two children have played in marching bands, lamented the fact that so many of Denver's schools had lost their band programs. He went to City Hall looking for a group to support, and the moribund Junior Police Band was brought to his attention. Moxcey's restaurant chain wound up helping provide instruments and uniforms for the band's sixty-plus members, along with registration fees for those kids who needed financial help to participate.
Moxcey himself admits that "he can't carry a tune in a sack," but he says the band provides more than just musical opportunities. "This is very good for kids," he says. "They're demonstrating that they have discipline, as well as the fact that they are willing to work. These are things that will help them later in life, regardless if they keep playing or not."
Jacinda Mullins, music director for the band, echoes Moxcey and adds that participation in the group could also pave the road for some of its members to earn college scholarships. "Since most of the city's elementary schools have lost their band programs, it's like starting from scratch when they get to junior high," says Mullins. "It's so much easier when they start playing early, and if they keep with it, it's definitely a scholarship avenue."
Pam Endsley, a member of the Colorado Symphony, has been a professional musician for over thirty years and serves on the band's board of directors. Endsley stresses that although the band isn't back to where it once was as far as proficiency is concerned, "caliber doesn't matter. It's a teaching and learning experience which is accessible to everyone, regardless of income. Nobody is not good enough to play with us."
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And the band continues to reflect its police influence--it's still governed by the cops. Beginners start off as cadets and can work up to captain, earning the traditional full uniform and badge (but no longer a cap pistol) along the way.
The band, which is currently recruiting fourth- through twelfth-graders, aspires to return to its initial glory of being a full-blown marching band traveling the country, although program director Nyla Luckey admits that the group has "a long way to go" before it recaptures that former glory.
"But that's okay," she says. "We're all finally on the same track and rebuilding.