Ellis Marsalis, Patriarch of Jazz Family, Dies at 85

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Marsalis Ellis (Photo: The Kurland Agency)

Ellis Marsalis, a leading modern jazz pianist, and the father of one of the leading jazz musical families, died on April 1, 2020. The New Orleans music legend had been hospitalized and tested for the Covid-19 virus. Marsalis, 85, is the father, most notably, of the jazz musicians, Wynton and Branford.

After years as an educator, Ellis Marsalis began to receive acclaim when his two sons became world-famous musicians. Before then, he worked with such major figures as Cannonball Adderley and Al Hirt. He later influenced such performers as Harry Connick Jr. and Terence Blanchard.

As a leader, he recorded 20 albums, several in collaboration with his sons. He performed on dozens of others’ recordings.

Wynton Marsalis is a virtuoso trumpeter, and his work has earned him nine Grammy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. For decades, he has been the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

One day after his father’s passing, Wynton Marsalis wrote, in part, on his Facebook page, “My daddy passed away last night. We now join the worldwide family who are mourning grandfathers and grandmothers, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers— kinfolk, friends, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances and others.

“What can one possibly say about loss in a time when there are many people losing folks that mean so much to them? One of my friends lost both her mother AND father just last week.

“I haven’t cried because the pain is so deep….it doesn’t even hurt. He was absolutely my man. He knew how much I loved him, and I knew he loved me.

“I only ever wanted to do better things to impress HIM. He was my North Star and the only opinion that really deep down mattered to me was his.”

Ellis Marsalis Jr., was born on November 14, 1934, and began formal music studies at the Xavier University junior school of music at age eleven. After high school Marsalis enrolled in Dillard University in New Orleans and graduated with a degree in music education in 1955.

Watch a beautiful tribute to Ellis Marsalis, produced by Jazz at Lincoln Center

In 1956, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and while stationed in southern California, began honing his skills as a pianist on the television show, Dress Blues, and a radio show, Leatherneck Songbook, both sponsored by the Marine Corps. Marsalis returned to New Orleans and married Dolores Ferdinand. In addition to Branford and Wynton, the couple had four other sons: Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya and Jason.

Between 1966-1974 Marsalis performed at the Playboy Club in New Orleans  and other night clubs, and became an adjunct professor at Xavier University, also in New Orleans.

He returned to school in 1974 at Loyola University New Orleans and while working toward a Masters Degree he was hired to teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school, where he spent the next twelve years as an instrumental music teacher with a jazz studies emphasis.

In 1986 Marsalis became Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth Univ. in Richmond, Va., later returning once again to New Orleans and the Univ. of New Orleans to become the first occupant of the Coca-Cola endowed chair of Jazz Studies as the director.

Marsalis received Honorary Doctorate degrees from Dillard Univ. in 1989, Ball State Univ., in Muncie, Ind., in 1997, and Tulane Univ. in 2007.

Over the years, he was a guest on such television shows as NBC’s Today Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and Jay Leno), The Charlie Rose Show and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, among many others.

In 2001, Marsalis retired from the Univ. of New Orleans after 12 years.

Related: 10 solos by jazz greats on rock songs

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