CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Ellis Marsalis 1934–2020

The jazz world mourns a beloved pianist and teacher—and the head of a royal New Orleans family

Ellis Marsalis (photo courtesy of the artist)
Ellis Marsalis (photo courtesy of the artist)

Ellis Marsalis, a pianist, composer, and educator who was also the patriarch of perhaps the most famous and influential family in jazz, died April 1 at a hospital in New Orleans. He was 85.

His death was announced Wednesday night in a statement by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell—an indicator of Marsalis’ stature in the city of jazz’s birth. His eldest son, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, said in a statement that the cause of death was complications from COVID-19.

“Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz,” read Mayor Cantrell’s statement in part. “The love and the prayers of all of our people go out to his family, and to all of those whose lives he touched.”

Although he gained fame and renown in the 1980s, when his sons Branford and trumpeter Wynton were the talk of the jazz world, Marsalis was widely known and beloved by jazz musicians around the globe well before that, despite his firm entrenchment in New Orleans. In part, this was because of his teaching positions at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and several of the city’s universities, through which he mentored a generation of musicians, including Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., and Jon Batiste.

Undoubtedly, however, his primary protégés were his sons, of whom four (out of six) became jazz musicians: Branford, Wynton, trombonist and producer Delfeayo, and drummer and vibraphonist Jason. The entire family, with Ellis Marsalis at its head, was the group recipient of an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2011.

Even so, Marsalis regarded himself as a music teacher who became a major musician entirely by accident. “I’m just a survivor in this,” he told JazzTimes in 1989. “I didn’t design any of this and most of it wasn’t supposed to happen anyway.”

Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born November 14, 1934 in New Orleans. His father, Ellis Sr., managed a gas station (later becoming its co-owner, the first African American to do so in Louisiana) and eventually opened a motel in the nearby Jefferson Parish. His mother, the former Florence Robertson, was a homemaker. Ellis Jr. began as a clarinetist and continued to be one through his time at New Orleans’ Dillard University, but took up the piano as part of his musical education degree—and found that he was able to get more work with the latter instrument than the former. After briefly working at Xavier University of Louisiana, he then enlisted, joining the U.S. Marine Corps band in southern California and working in a small combo called the Corps Four (the house band for a television program called Dress Blues).

Returning to New Orleans after his discharge, Marsalis worked at his family’s motel during the day and gigged at night. He married Dolores Ferdinand in 1959; Branford was born the following year, and Wynton the year after.

Through the 1960s, Marsalis was a rare breed: a New Orleans jazz pianist whose focus was on bebop and modern jazz. He worked with other local modernists, including saxophonist Harold Battiste and drummer Ed Blackwell, as well as with the Adderley brothers when they came through town. However, he also had trad chops, accompanying trumpeter Al Hirt in the ’60s and ’70s and gigging regularly at his New Orleans club.

Marsalis earned his master’s degree in music education from Loyola University in 1974, and that same year became the first jazz teacher at NOCCA. It was then that his reputation began to spread more widely. Connick, Blanchard, and his own sons were among his students; countless others came through his classroom, now known as the Ellis Marsalis Jr. Jazz Studio.

In 1986, as his sons and other students became jazz phenomena, Marsalis quit New Orleans for a job at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. The excursion was brief; he returned in 1989 to found the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans, where he remained until his retirement in 2001. He also began a Friday night gig at the Frenchmen Street jazz club Snug Harbor—which became a 30-year residency that ended in December 2019.

As a teacher, Marsalis espoused a philosophy of learning from history and the masters, but also of taking chances and finding new avenues on one’s own. He saw it as his duty to expose his students to the broadest possible spectrum of musical ideas. “The average kid knows what is on the radio and what is on MTV,” he said in a 1989 OffBeat interview. “And I think they should. All of us should be products of the cultural experiences of our time…. [but] I think that the responsibility of those of us who refer to ourselves as educators is to say, ‘That’s great, but check this out.’”

Or, as his son Branford quoted him saying, “You don’t know what you like. You like what you know. In order to know what you like, you have to know everything.”

In addition to his four musical sons, Marsalis is survived by two more sons, Mboya and Ellis III; his sister, Yvette; and several grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Dolores, who died in 2017.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.