Passionate about music from an early age, Ellis Marsalis devoted much of his life to what many claim is the most American of art forms: jazz. Over the second half of the 20th century, few did more to nurture and elevate the genre than Marsalis, the patriarch of one of America’s most decorated musical families, one that has often been referred to as America’s royal family of jazz.
A gifted pianist and composer, Marsalis devoted much of his life to education and in the process influenced countless students and disciples, including four of his sons, the musicians Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason.
“He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be,”
— Branford Marsalis, son of Ellis Marsalis
One only needs to read through the outpouring of tributes to Marsalis, who died on April 1 at the age of 85 in his hometown of New Orleans, to understand the incredible influence he had over the jazz world.
“My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father. He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be,” said Branford Marsalis in a statement announcing his father’s death as a result of complications from COVID-19. Prior to his death, Marsalis had been hospitalized with pneumonia and other symptoms.
“Ellis Marsalis was a legend,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. “He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz. He was a teacher, a father, and an icon—and words aren’t sufficient to describe the art, the joy, and the wonder he showed the world. This loss cuts us deeply.”
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1934. His father, Ellis Marsalis Sr., owned and operated the Marsalis Motel on the banks of the Mississippi River. The motel, which catered to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, welcomed the likes of Cab Calloway, Etta James, and Ray Charles, as well as civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. His mother, Florence (Robertson) Marsalis, was a homemaker.
Marsalis started out focusing on the saxophone before transitioning to the piano in high school. As both his parents discouraged him from pursuing a straightforward career in music, he enrolled in New Orleans’s Dillard University, earning a degree in music education in 1955. After serving as the band director at Xavier University Preparatory high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in the late 1950s and became a member of the Corps Four, a jazz quartet that performed on television and radio to aid in recruitment.
In 1956, Marsalis met his future wife, Dolores Ferdinand, at the city’s Lincoln Beach amusement park, where the two were attending a Dinah Washington concert. In 1959, they married, and would end up celebrating 58 years of marriage before her death in 2017.
Marsalis spent the 1960s raising children with his wife while working at his father’s motel. At night, he would slip out to play with some of the city’s most popular jazz acts, including the house band at the French Quarter’s notorious Playboy Club, plus groups led by revered musicians such as the trumpeter Al Hirt and drummer Bob French.
Throughout that era, Marsalis recorded with both modern and progressive jazz musicians, including the drummer Ed Blackwell and the horn-playing brothers Cannonball and Nat Adderley.
In 1974, Marsalis enrolled in a master’s degree program at Loyola University on the GI Bill, and was recruited to teach music, with an emphasis on jazz, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a new magnet school where he went on to shape teen prodigies including Terence Blanchard and Harry Connick, Jr., as well as his own children.
“Among the countless lessons Ellis taught me, the most important was the process of discovery. He already knew everything I was trying to learn, but he always made me figure things out for myself,” said Connick, Jr., in a Facebook post. “He was a grand master educator, an inimitable pianist, a caring mentor, and a dear friend. I wouldn’t be who I am without him.”
After receiving his master’s degree in music education in 1986, Marsalis continued to keep one foot rooted in the academic world, first at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he created a jazz curriculum for the school of the arts, and then the University of New Orleans, where he served for 12 years as the founding director of its jazz studies department before retiring in 2001. A steadfast champion of the genre, he took every opportunity to remind his students of jazz’s ability to articulate the underlying values of American culture.
From the early stages of his career, Marsalis stood out by devoting himself to modern jazz rather than the traditional jazz and R&B that the majority of his peers focused on. Throughout his life, he never strayed far from music education, and went on to become among the country’s foremost advocates for the inclusion of jazz education in formal academic settings. Many students of jazz point to Marsalis as one of the foremost guardians of the genre, having done more than most to establish its place in the musical landscape. His influence was ever-present on the jazz album charts of the 1980s and 1990s, which were often populated by his former students as well as his progeny.
As two of those sons, Wynton and Branford rose to international prominence, Marsalis began to receive more attention for his recordings, and he released a series of albums for Blue Note and Columbia. In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts named Marsalis and his musician sons Jazz Masters, the highest honor for an American jazz musician.
Marsalis, who released more than 15 albums of his own and was featured in numerous collaborations with his sons, remained active into his final years, having played a weekly gig for three decades at one of New Orleans’s top jazz clubs, Snug Harbor, before stepping away in January.
Marsalis was proud of his sons’ accomplishments. Wynton, a trumpeter, is artistic director of jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center; Branford, a Grammy-winning saxophonist, was the bandleader of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; Delfeayo, a trombonist, is a prominent recording producer; and Jason, a percussionist, has earned acclaim with his own band and as an accompanist. All are accomplished performers and bandleaders who have toured the world.
His legacy will live on in myriad ways, most notably via the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a 17,000-square-foot facility that serves as a performance, education, and community venue in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. A key part of the Musicians’ Village that was conceived by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Marsalis Center, which opened in 2011, extends opportunities for underserved children, students, and musicians.
“What can one possibly say about loss in a time when there are many people losing folks that mean so much to them?” said Wynton Marsalis in a statement posted on Facebook. “My daddy was a humble man with a lyrical sound that captured the spirit of place—New Orleans, the Crescent City, The Big Easy, the Curve. He was a stone-cold believer without extravagant tastes.”
In addition to his aforementioned sons, Marsalis is survived by two non-musician sons, Mboya and Ellis III; a sister, Yvette; and 15 grandchildren.