Wynton Marsalis Pens Tribute to ‘My Man,’ Father, Ellis

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Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, brother Branford on sax, with Ellis Marsalis on piano (Photo: Marsalis Family Archives)

One day after his father, the grand jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, Jr., died at age 85, of complications from the Covid-19 virus, his son, Wynton, paid tribute to “my man… my North Star.”

In a lengthy April 2 post on his Facebook page, Wynton Marsalis, himself a virtuoso trumpeter and one of the most acclaimed musicians of his generation, wrote, “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 because I grew up seeing how much he struggled and sacrificed to represent and teach vital human values that floated far above the stifling segregation and prejudice that defined his youth.”

In various tributes that began to appear, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., was consistently praised with the words “legendary” and “a great teacher.”

Watch father and son perform together in 1990

More from his son Wynton’s post: “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. We all grieve and experience things differently, and I’m sure each of my five brothers are feeling and dealing in their own way.

“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.

“Like many parents, he sacrificed for us and made so much possible. Not only material things, but things of substance and beauty like the ability to hear complicated music and to read books; to see and to contemplate art; to be philosophical and kind, but to also understand that a time and place may require a pugilistic-minded expression of ignorance.

“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 (though he was not given to any type of demonstrative expression of it). As a boy, I followed him on so many underpopulated gigs in unglamorous places, and there, in the passing years, learned what it meant to believe in the substance of a fundamental idea whose only verification was your belief.

“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 because I grew up seeing how much he struggled and sacrificed to represent and teach vital human values that floated far above the stifling segregation and prejudice that defined his youth but, strangely enough, also imbued his art with an even more pungent and biting accuracy.

“A most fair-minded, large-spirited, generous, philanthropic (with whatever he had), open-minded person is gone. Ironically, when we spoke just 5 or 6 days ago about this precarious moment in the world and the many warnings he received ‘to be careful, because it wasn’t his time to pass from COVID’, he told me, ‘Man, I don’t determine the time. A lot of people are losing loved ones. Yours will be no more painful or significant than anybody else’s’.

“In that conversation, we didn’t know that we were prophesying. But he went out soon after as he lived—-without complaint or complication. The nurse asked him, Are you breathing ok? as the oxygen was being steadily increased from 3 to 8, to too late, he replied, ‘Yeah. I’m fine.’

“For me, there is no sorrow only joy. He went on down the Good Kings Highway as was his way, a jazz man, ‘with grace and gratitude’.

“And I am grateful to have known him.

– Wynton”

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