New Orleans jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis has died at the age of 85. The legendary musical patriarch had been hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and was awaiting coronavirus test results.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Marsalis began playing saxophone before switching to piano during high school. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he played with numerous musicians, including Ed Blackwell, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, and Al Hirt. During the same period, he became a member of the Playboy Club’s house band in the French Quarter.
Over the course of his career, he recorded over 20 of albums of his own and collaborated with the likes of Courtney Pine, David “Fathead” Newman, and Eddie Harris. However, his greatest legacy and influence stems from his time as an educator.
In the ’70s, he taught African American music and jazz improvisation as an adjunct professor at Xavier University. After receiving a graduate degree from Loyola University, he was hired as a music teacher at the renowned New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts magnet high school. Following a stint in the ’80s teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, he returned to New Orleans to help establish the jazz studies program at University of New Orleans in 1989.
During his time as an educator, he mentored a number of musicians destined for greatness, including Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Charlie Dennard, Irvin Mayfield, Jesse Davis, Marlon Jordan, and Paul Longstretch. He also taught his three sons, Branford, Wynton, and Delfeayo, each of whom would go on to celebrated artists in their own rights. Marsalis retired from UNO in 2001.
In a statement about his passing (via Nola.com), New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said,
“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. He was a teacher, a father, and an icon… This loss cuts us deeply.”
Marsalis’s death comes three years after his wife, Dolores, passed away. They are survived by their six sons, Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya Kinyatta, and Jason.
Update: The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music and its co-founders have issues a statement about Marsalis’ passing. They’re also asking that “those who wish to ensure that Ellis’ legacy lives on, please consider making a donation” to the center here.
One of the EMCM’s co-founders and Marsalis’ sons, Brandford, shared in his statement,
“It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., as a result of complications from the Coronavirus. He was admitted to the hospital on Saturday and died peacefully on the evening of April 1. 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.'”
Another of the center’s co-founders, Harry Connick, Jr., wrote,
“my heart is heavy today. among the countless lessons ellis marsalis taught me, the most important was the process of discovery. he already knew everything i was trying to learn; but he always made me figure things out for myself. he was a grand master educator, an inimitable pianist, a caring mentor and a dear friend. i wouldn’t be who i am without him. i’ll miss him with all my heart. my prayers are with the marsalis family today. i love you so much, mr. marsalis.