The Grambling State Marching Band and the Mercer Ellington Orchestra share the 50 yard line stage during the 1975 Super Bowl halftime show “A Tribute to Duke Ellington”
I could make the argument that jazz being marketed as a “popular music” officially died on January 12, 1975. Why? Because that was the date of the last Super Bowl halftime show that featured jazz music, in this case a “Tribute to Duke Ellington” performed by the Grambling State University Marching Band and Mercer Ellington. Sure, in subsequent years there was the occasional Pete Fountain/Al Hirt exhibition to pump local tourism when the game was held in New Orleans, but Madison Avenue officially ended all attempts at presenting jazz to a mass audience at the conclusion of the halftime show for the ’75 Steelers/Vikings game. What followed was an era of musical malaise for halftime shows (Up With People performed in four of the next 10 shows, for chrissakes!) and then Michael Jackson’s 1993 show opened the eyes of big business to the value of that time, and things were never the same.
Hard to believe, but I found a clip on YouTube of the 1975 halftime show. It is very raw and the sound makes early recordings made in the Gennett Studio sound pristine in comparison, but it is a remarkable piece of history. The introduction by NBC’s veteran (and very square) sports reporter Charlie Jones of the “Tribute to Duke Ellington” is shortly followed by the field announcer effusively proclaiming “The National Football League proudly presents a Super Bowl Halftime Spectacular!” Two or three people are heard clapping, and the Grambling State University Marching Band – a reasonably familiar sight on halftime shows during the ’60’s and ’70’s – assembles and eventually kicks into high gear on Duke’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.” The film then segue ways into Ellington’s orchestra, under Mercer’s direction, shown crowded atop a tiered bandstand resembling an undersized parade float and playing their own “‘A’ Train” arrangement, featuring what sounds to be a very serviceable Cootie Williams solo.
And then, like any future attempts at marketing jazz music to a national audience, the clip ends — abruptly.
The 1975 Super Bowl Halftime Show — “A Tribute to Duke Ellington”