jazz legend Ellis Marsalis, dead at 85 from coronavirus
Ellis Marsalis, jazz legend, educator and patriarch of the Marsalis family of musicians, died on Wednesday at age 85. Cause of death are believed to have been complications from COVID-19, according to his family. For all his accomplishments, Ellis was probably best known for being the father of Branford and Wynton, his eldest sons who reinvigorated jazz in the 1980s, as well as Delfeayo, a trombonist, and Jason, a drummer and vibraphonist. “My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father,” Branford Marsalis said in a statement, while Wynton wrote, "He went out the way he lived: embracing reality."
“He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be.” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement, “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.” From Billboard:
Ellis Marsalis Jr. shared a name with his father, a prominent hotelier and civil rights activist in New Orleans, but it was the younger Ellis who would forever attach the Marsalises to the very core of jazz music. Beginning as a clarinetist while he was still in elementary school, Marsalis soon homed in on what would be his lifelong passion with a degree in music education from Dillard University.
By then, Marsalis had mostly switched to piano -- the instrument that occasionally brought him onto the national stage as a young man alongside artists from Ornette Coleman to Nat and Cannonball Adderley. But he never stayed away from his hometown for too long, especially once he and his wife Dolores started their family.
Marsalis took a teaching position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School in the early 1970s and soon became one of the city’s most renowned musical educators. Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton would all eventually learn jazz piano, composition and improvisation from the maestro. Marsalis became the first chair of the now-storied jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1989, a post from which he retired in 2001. His legacy as an educator endures at the Ellis Marsalis Center, a nonprofit music and performing arts facility in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.
Rest in peace, Ellis. Your music and legacy live on. Listen to some of his recordings, and read tributes from Dr John, Terence Blanchard, John Legend, Ken Burns, Wendell Pierce, and more, below.