Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis Dies at 80

From a musical family, wife of Ellis and influential mother of famous sons

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Ellis and Dolores Marsalis (photo courtesy of Elsa Hahne/OffBeat)

Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, the matriarch of a family considered New Orleans musical royalty including husband Ellis Jr. and sons Branford, Delfeayo, Jason and Wynton (and two more sons, Mboya Kenyatta and poet Ellis III), died on July 18 at age 80. The cause per news reports was pancreatic cancer.

Born Dolores Ferdinand in 1937 in New Orleans, La., the future Mrs. Marsalis came from a family with its own musical heritage. Her great uncle Wellman Braud played in the early iterations of Duke Ellington’s big band and has been credited with inventing the “walking” bass style, and she was more distantly related to the Dejan and Eugene families (of various New Orleans brass bands).

After high school, she attended Grambling State University, graduating with a degree in home economics and then returning to live in New Orleans. Always a fan of good music, in 1956 she met Ellis, fresh from a stint in the Marine Corps, at a Dinah Washington concert, and three years later they were married.

As the family grew with children, Dolores provided stability and inspiration at home. Ellis worked a steady stream of gigs, taking out-of-town teaching assignments which kept him away six days a week, then working and touring with Al Hirt’s band and ultimately obtaining a graduate degree in music from Loyola University in Louisiana.

By accounts a person most comfortable outside of the spotlight, she was nonetheless a powerful influence on the family, especially when it came to her sons’ pursuit of education. In an interview excerpt from JazzTimes’ 2016-17 Education Guide, Wynton Marsalis recounts:

“My mother was from the projects, so she was always really smart and she was always about education, but she was always about substantive education. My mom, she would always say, and it was insightful, ‘Child, every year that passes, I understand just how profound slavery was.’ My mom would also say, ‘It’s not a matter of do you get a degree, it’s what’s behind that degree. It doesn’t matter if you set up in a classroom; what are you being taught, child?’”

In another excerpt, Wynton tells another story:

“She did not play, I’m telling you. I could write a book on her. We [ate] spaghetti a lot, because sometimes we’d go low on money. I hate spaghetti. I came in one night, and I was insensitive to the situation at hand. My mom was cooking, and I said, ‘What, we got spaghetti again?’ You know, she had a look at you, like she wasn’t in the mood for that, but I didn’t interpret it. I sat down, and when the spaghetti came out I [said], ‘Damn spaghetti.’ My mother said [speaks in sweet voice], ‘Is something wrong with the food? You don’t like the food, King?’ She started calling me ‘King.’ Then she walked over to the table and picked up the plate, as if she was going to take it back. ‘Oh, what’s wrong with the food, Jesus? The King doesn’t like the food?’

“Then boom—she dumped the whole plate of spaghetti in my Afro. I had a big, proud Afro then. And she said, ‘Every King must have a crown.’”

At present, per NOLA.com, memorial arrangements are in process.