A Weekend in Morrisania: Hager in the Bronx

For over eight months, I have lived in the Bronx, specifically the neighborhood of Morrisania. Nothing is quite as exciting and inspiring as living in a historic neighborhood that is of specific interest to you. I am very thankful for this privilege, and am proud to say that the first place I will have lived in New York was in the Bronx. While there is still a lot of its history intact, much of it is buried underneath the modern paved streets, much like the rest of New York City.

One thing, however, that is still intact somehow is the amphitheater where weekend band concerts happened in St. Mary’s park. Fred Hager and his full orchestra played here between 1896 and 1901, and, while the gazebo no longer exists, the space was returned to an open air theater within the last few decades. As in every city in the United States in the latter 19th century, weekend band concerts were very popular, especially after the tours of Gilmore’s band during the Reconstruction era. I have previously written an article about Hager’s band concerts, but now that I live very close to where they happened, I have more items to add.

Hot Jazz Jubile

St. Mary’s park is an interesting one, it isn’t particularly large, but it does make some impact on the map. It actually used to be a bit smaller than its current size. When looking at it on a map, it has a distinct curved border that follows its east side. This actually used to be where two of the major elevated train lines almost met. The infamous 3rd avenue El and the Lexington lines converged very near the top of the park. The eastern outline of the park itself was a train line that led to a small depot. If you go there today the actual train depot building sits there abandoned, as does one of the lines that was later converted to be an underground line. While yes, this made the park concerts much more accessible for folks all over the area, one of the drawbacks to the concerts in this park were the elevated trains themselves.

Picture it, it’s Sunday afternoon, you and your friends are all dressed up to go listen to Hager’s orchestra and picnic on the lawn at the park. As they begin with the usual Star Spangled Banner, a train goes by. A few songs later, another train, and another. While this was certainly a fact of life for people living in any populated areas at the time, surely Hager himself must have found it a nuisance every once in a while. Oddly enough, Hager’s own father could have even been driving any of those trains, as he was still at the time working as an engineer.

The park was much smaller than the others in the Bronx, so the train chatter was inevitable, especially with two very active lines on both sides. Even with this somewhat comical situation, the concerts were well attended. The local papers in the neighborhood always spoke highly of these concerts in the summers, always giving Hager himself extra praise.

UpBeat Records

Some of the pieces they played at these concerts were quite different from the standard fare of many other popular bands of the time. Hager made sure to choose pieces that were classics, but each show he threw in a (or a few) wild card piece of ragtime. Some of the surviving programs in Hager’s scrapbook provide a very unique look into what these rather quaint concerts sounded like. He played pieces such as “Ragged William” by fellow recording musician Frank P. Banta, “Cottonfield Capers “ by William C. O’Hare, and of course many of his own and his partner Justin Ring’s pieces.

The thing that makes his concerts particularly interesting, however, is that he was playing pieces that he also recorded. There were simultaneous concerts going on at the neighboring Claremont and Crotona parks, but those were reserved for the generally more popular bands. Despite this, they didn’t have the same bragging rights and sales pitch, as Hager also made recordings to accompany the live music. He was selling what was at the time the most trendy merchandise a concert goer could purchase.

The military band world was incredibly competitive at the time, as leaders were always jostling for gigs in the bigger parks. In addition to dozens of invaluable programs, Hager saved other pages that state what bands were playing on certain weekends. One of these 1903 programs mentions that the famous 71st Regiment Band playing in Central Park, led by former Marine Band leader Francesco Fanciulli. He led the band directly after John Philip Sousa, and before longest-serving leader William Santelmann. The 71st Regiment Band did occasionally make records for several labels, but not nearly as often as Hager’s. One could guess that playing in Central Park was the big time, and it certainly was. In the Bronx however, this title was reserved for the band who played in the Bronx Park.

Teddy Roosevelt and Archibald Butt, Bronx park (1898)

Today, the Bronx park does not exist; it is now the New York Botanical Gardens. But back in 1902, it was the most popular park in the Bronx (not the largest, that was and still is Van Cortlandt). The Bronx Zoo was also attached, adding to its popularity. Somehow, after several years relegated to the train crossroads of 149th Street, Hager managed to hustle his way to playing in the Bronx park for two seasons. This, as could be expected, was a big deal.

While he did preserve many programs from his time at St. Mary’s, he saved nearly the same amount of press from these two seasons in the Bronx Park. He played there in the summers of 1902 and 1903, to crowds that sometimes numbered as many as 20,000. The local papers were buzzing with talk of the frenzy these Hager concerts often caused.


He was at the time the youngest successful bandleader in New York, and this brought many young admirers not just to see him but also to enjoy the edgy popular music of the younger generation. One page Hager saved in his scrapbook mentioned that oftentimes he and others in the audience would throw piles of programs into the audience, causing lots of confusion and unintended disorder.

Sunday in the Park with Hager? A band concert at Bronx Park in the early 1900s.

Clearly, Hager was in his element at these shows. There is actually a comic song from around this time called “How the Irish Beat the Band” that tells a story similar in disorder to what happened at these concerts, and yes it was recorded on Zon-O-Phone.

It was around this time that Hager’s records became even more popular, possibly because of these concerts. Before 1902, the Zon-O-Phone records he was making were considered “second class” by most, as they just weren’t as well known by the public yet. People were more aware of Edison and Victor records than the innovative and fringe Zon-O-phone.


While all of this was good publicity, and it eventually got Hager on the map as a bandleader and composer, he never returned to this lifestyle again after the summer 1903 season. He did this in spite of this historically being the height of his band’s popularity. Doing this was a chore, and especially in the last two seasons, as he brought out his entire orchestra of over 40 musicians for these shows. For comparison, his recordings only featured up to 25.

Hager’s orchestra(1902)

After the season of 1903, paired with weekend recording trips to Philadelphia with the entire band that spring, Hager was done with hustling his band as he had done. It was around this time he was considering leaving recording and going into publishing, which in 1904 he eventually did.

It is so fun to go to these parks and imagine the bands playing to thousands of people, especially with the once unrelenting rattle of elevated trains breezing by. While it is still loud today, the noise isn’t quite the same as it used to be in New York.


R. S. Baker has appeared at several Ragtime festivals as a pianist and lecturer. Her particular interest lies in the brown wax cylinder era of the recording industry, and in the study of the earliest studio pianists, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, and Frederick W. Hager.

Or look at our Subscription Options.