Jazz Patriarch and Educator Ellis Marsalis has died at 85

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Ellis Marsalis, Jr.
Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

Ellis Marsalis, Jr., New Orleans, pianist, educator, NEA Jazz Master and the patriarch of a musical family, succumbed to the Covid-19 coronavirus on April 1st. He was 85.

Ellis Marsalis began his musical career as a tenor saxophonist, but switched to the piano in high school. Beginning his professional career over 50 years ago, he was one of the few New Orleans musicians who did not specialize in Dixieland or rhythm-and-blues, preferring to play with fellow modernists like Cannonball and Nat Adderley.

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Though recording almost 20 of his own albums along the way he shunned the spotlight to focus on teaching. His didactic approach, combined with an interest in philosophy, encouraged his students to make discoveries in music on their own through experimentation and careful listening.

As a leading educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University, he influenced the careers of countless musicians, including Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton as well as his four musical sons Wynton, Jason, Delfeayo, and Branford.

Ellis Marsalis with his sons Wynton Jason Delfeayo and Branford bw
Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (center) with sons Wynton, Jason, Delfeayo, and Branford. (submitted photo)

He received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University and was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music at Musicians’ Village in New Orleans is named in his honor. He could still be heard performing with his quintet at the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro on Frenchmen Street.

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Further Reading: Van Young wrote a column for us titled Encouragement Does Help!, in it he compares Ellis Marsalis, Jr. to an earlier New Orleans educator, Peter Davis, the music teacher who saw potential in Louis Armstrong at the Colored Waif’s Home.

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