Disco Band


The most widely anticipated night of the spring semester, if not the entire year at Grinnell College is Disco.

Disco: a Grinnell tradition older than the students themselves, a hark back to Studio 54 and all the glamour that goes along with the 1970s, a night full of spandex, cheap cologne, and funk, and, above all, a damn good time.  On this week’s twenty-sixth anniversary of the Grinnell College tradition known as Disco Harris I dropped into the Disco Band’s second rehearsal to get a better understanding of one of the most anticipated Harris sets of the year and the artists that are featured as this week’s Campus Celebrities.

The rehearsal gets off to a rough start as an administrator interrupts with a lengthy speech about the unauthorized use of the practice room, as a few group members grumble that this would never happen if Dan Ehrlich [2014] were still here.  What a group of rebels.

The band gets back to tuning and adjusting microphones as I invisibly sip my iced coffee in the corner, until Valerie McGraw [2017] yells for order.  The chaos subsides and the band begins the song, “September” by the legendary Earth, Wind, and Fire and the mood of the room is infectious.  They continue to “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield, “YMCA” by the Village People, and “Brick House” by The Commodores.  After the rehearsal I strong-arm at least half of the Disco Band to stay and answer a few questions for me.

Megan:  “Why are you all in the Disco Band?”

Austin Morris [2015]:  “Because it’s fun as hell.”

Then Jacob Salzman [2015] chimes in, forever the voice of reason in this interview: “Would you like to hear a history of the Disco Band?”

The Disco party has historically been thrown by the Grinnell College soccer teams and one year many of the athletes also happened to be musicians.  They thought it would be fun to have a live band and threw one together less than a week before the event.  Grinnell alumnus, Charlie Kessner, wrote a lot of music in his car, and so began the Disco Band.

I was impressed with Jacob’s background knowledge of the band.  When I asked the band members who they would channel for their performance a common answer was Daniel Ehrlich [2014] and Connor Schake [2014], two previous Disco Band members who have certainly left behind a legacy and some big shoes to fill.


Other inspirational artists for the group include Earth, Wind, and Fire, KC and the Sunshine Band, and most band members weren’t surprised to hear that Yang West [2015] believed that the essence of disco music lies in Donna Summer.  Male lead vocalist Austin Morris claimed that he would be channeling Rick James for his vocal performance.

It was then that Jacob Salzman pointed out that many Grinnellians confuse disco music and funk music from the 1970s.  He says that disco is fast-paced, always around 140 beats per minute, while funk is subtler in how it manipulates an audience’s mood.  Think: “Brick House” by The Commodores.

Megan:  “So a more appropriate name would be the Disco-Funk Fusion Band, then?”

The group laughs in agreement and we move on to the next subject:  What disco song best embodies the spirit of Grinnell and its students?

Rosie O’Brien [2016]:  “’September’ [by Earth, Wind, and Fire] because it has a sense of nostalgia about all the good times during the fall semester.”

Jacob Salzman:  “Something that everybody can dance to, because Grinnellians love to dance.”

The fact is that all disco songs can be danced to, because that is what the music is designed for.  But the group decided that “YMCA” by the Village People is the best fit for Grinnellians.  I had to agree: the song is the perfect balance of quirky, danceable, and insightful.

Megan:  “What kind of disco fashions are you hoping to see?  And what will you be wearing?”

Yang West:  “I love the jumpsuit.  Also, I would love to see a fur coat in the audience.”

Austin Morris:  “All gold everything.”

Jacob Salzman:  “Dan Ehrlich [2014] had a literal disco ball suit that he wore.  I’m not sure if anyone can top that.”

So the fashion differs, but as second-year Jonathan Ackman advises:  “Make sure you come dressed for disco.”  Other advice from the group varies in its helpfulness, personal warnings, and hilarity.

Yang West:  “Maintain a safe level of drunkenness.  Do not break your heels and run through glass.”

Austin Morris:  “Don’t get got by that Brut.”  Brut, as many Grinnellians fall victim to, is a type of cheap cologne that mimics a popular style in the 1970s and in some areas of Europe today.  Grinnellians seem to think that copiously misting their companions with Brut will enhance the authenticity of their disco experience.

Jacob Salzman and Valerie McGraw [2017]:  “Dance as early as possible.  If you’re there, you should be dancing.”

Rosie O’Brien:  “Bring an umbrella in case of thunderstorms.”

Luke Panciera [2016]:  “Get funky.”

And on that note, a huge congratulations and job well done goes out to all members of the 2015 Disco Band for their sensational performance Saturday night.


Vocals: Austin Morris and Yang West [2015]

Violin: Leah Meyer [2015]

Drums: Jacob Getzoff [2017]

Guitar: Erhaan Ahmad [2018] and Austin McKenney [2015]

Bass Guitar: Tom Earnest [2016]

Saxophone: Thomas Robinson [2016], Valerie McGraw [2017], Jacob Salzman [2015]

Trombone: Alec Peck [2015] and Rosie O’Brien [2016]

Trumpet: Luke Panciera [2016] and Jonathan Ackman [2017]

Keyboard: Omari Benami [2016]