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#166 Musical Clubs, Another Historic Tradition

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, This Week in History

The Norwich Glee Club was founded sometime in the 1880s. College glee clubs, a type of a cappella singing group, rose to popularity across the country during the mid-to-late 19th century. By 1890, the Norwich club had gained a reputation in the university community and were traveling to gigs in Boston and elsewhere. This a cappella singing group was a popular feature at alumni club meetings, and eventually, a spring tour became a central tradition. Early on, their performances served as fundraisers for the Athletic Association. Indeed, athletics remained such a prevalent extracurricular activity (and the student body remained so small) that the Glee Club had to put off its practices until after football season so that its members would be available.

Early on in the life of jazz music, a short-lived student jazz band played at a few campus events during the late 1910s. The university then got its first dance orchestra in 1923. With a somewhat motley assortment of instruments including violin, piano, drums, trumpet, banjo, trombone, and saxophone, they played their first dance that October to the acclaim of both students and Northfield locals. The orchestra, sometimes styled as the Rhythm Kings, was a staple at campus events throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but seems to have been superseded after World War II by a more contemporary musical style: swing.

In 1938, keeping up with the times, Norwich debuted its first swing orchestra under the name of the Grenadiers. The 11-piece band first played at the “Tea Dance” following the Norwich-Middlebury football game in October 1938. The musical cadets, under the baton of sophomore Robert Service ’41, were met with great appreciation. The group was a fixture at dances and university events for decades. By the 1980s they evolved into a jazz ensemble that still performs today—making 2018 the 80th birthday of the Grenadiers!

Other groups have also come and gone over time. In recent years, the Grenadiers and the historic university band have been joined by newcomers such as the Pipes and Drums Band in bringing the magic of music to life on the Hill.