Ellis Marsalis, a jazz patriarch in New Orleans and father of Wynton and Brandon Marsalis, has died. He was being treated at a local hospital with suspected COVID-19 infection, but the test results have not yet been returned, according to a family member.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell praised him in a tweeted statement. “Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz. The love and the prayers of all of our people go out to his family, and to all of those whose lives he touched.”
Marsalis was a noted teacher in New Orleans and a frequent performer at festivals.
Jazz trumper Terence Blanchad, a former student, sent out his appreciation on social media. “This man is the beginning and the reason I am who I am,” Blanchard said.
Ellis Marsalis Jr. achieved a degree in music education from Dillard University, switching to piano from his early days on clarinet. He worked as a sideman for Ornette Coleman and Nat and Cannonball Adderley for a time, but when family life called, he took a teaching position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School in the early 1970s.
Besides Blanchard, his students included Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton. Marsalis became the first chair of the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1989, retiring just last year.
Marsalis’s most impressive teaching was to his six sons with wife Dolores: Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya Kinyatta and Jason.
Branford Marsalis issued a statement on his father. “My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father. He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be. And to quote my friend and Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins who just sent me the following text: “We can all marvel at the sheer audacity of a man who believed he could teach his black boys to be excellent in a world that denied that very possibility, and then watch them go on to redefine what excellence means for all time.”
No details on a memorial service have been announced as yet. But the family has asked for donations to the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which provides instruction in music and the arts, academic support, and basic food security for hundreds of kids from New Orleans’s 9th Ward,.