Ellis Marsalis, legendary jazz pianist and patriarch of the musical Marsalis family, died on Wednesday at age 85. According to a statement from his son Branford Marsalis, his father died of complications resulting from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Throughout his long and storied career, Ellis Marsalis held many claims to fame. He raised a family of musicians, including his sons Branford (saxophone), Wynton (trumpet), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drummer/vibraphone). He stood as a pillar of the revival of traditional jazz over several decades, especially at times when jazz fusion took hold in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of Ellis’ most cherished roles, however, was that of “teacher.” Over a lifetime of mentoring other musicians, both in schools and in clubs, he taught acts such as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr., Harry Connick Jr., and Nicholas Payton, who all went on to help forge the traditionalist movement ignited by Marsalis, and would be loosely referred to as the “Young Lions.”
“My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father,” Branford Marsalis said in a statement. “He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be.”
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born in New Orleans, LA on November 14th, 1934. His mother, Florence Robertson, was a homemaker while his father, Ellis Marsalis Sr., owned the Marsalis Hotel in a suburb of New Orleans and also became involved in the fight for Civil Rights. Over the years, the hotel hosted guests including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Ray Charles, and many more.
Ellis Marsalis was well appreciated in his native New Orleans, where he served for 12 years at the University of New Orleans as the director of the jazz studies department. His influences also stretched far beyond Louisiana as well, teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University and performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1983.
“Mr. Marsalis’s interpretations were impressive in their economy and steadiness,” New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote of the performance. “Sticking mainly to the middle register of the keyboard, the pianist offered richly harmonized arrangements in which fancy keyboard work was kept to a minimum and studious melodic invention, rather than pronounced bass patterns, determined the structures and tempos.”
In addition to his teaching accolades and the joys he found in his family, Ellis also claimed a host of other awards. In 2008, Ellis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts named Ellis and his sons N.E.A. Jazz Masters, which is considered the highest honor an American jazz musician can receive. All the while, Ellis maintained a weekly gig at New Orleans’ Snug Harbor for decades, before giving it up this past December.
“My father never put pressure on me. He’s too cool for that kind of stuff,” Wynton said. When asked to describe his father’s brand of cool, Wynton responded, “The house could fall down and everyone would be running around, and he would still be sitting in his same chair.”
In addition to Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, Ellis is survived by two non-musician sons Mboya and Ellis III; his sister Yvette; and 13 grandchildren. His wife of 58 years, Dolores Marsalis, died in 2017.
[H/T New York Times]