Ellis Marsalis Jr., a jazz pianist from New Orleans, died Wednesday night from complications due to coronavirus, his son, Branford Marsalis, confirmed in a statement to Variety. He was 85.
In addition to having his own prominent music career, Marsalis helped pave the way for four of his sons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, to enter the music industry. Wynton is a trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director; Branford plays the saxophone; Delfeayo is a trombonist; and Jason plays the drums.
“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,'” Branford Marsalis said in the statement.
Said Harry Connick, Jr., co-founder of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans’ 9th ward: “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.”
Marsalis counted Ed Blackwell, Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley and Al Hirt among some of his mentors in the ’50s and ’60s. He taught at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in the ’70s, where some of his students included Terence Blanchard, Connick Jr., Donald Harrison, Marlon Jordan, Kent Jordan and Nicholas Payton.
In 2008, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans was named in his honor a year earlier.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell posted a tribute to the musician on Twitter, calling him “the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.”
Ellis Marsalis was an icon — and words aren’t sufficient to describe the art, the joy & the wonder he showed the world. May we wrap his family in our love & our gratitude, & may we honor his memory by coming together in spirit— even as the outbreak keeps us apart, for a time. pic.twitter.com/evIBCJk7Z3
— Mayor LaToya Cantrell (@mayorcantrell) April 2, 2020
The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music is accepting donations to support teachers’ paychecks, teach musical education and provide food security for hundreds of kids living in New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Find out more about the Center here: https://www.ellismarsaliscenter.org/ The Center provides instruction in the arts, academic support, and even basic food security for hundreds of kids from the 9th Ward, as well as providing a performance and recording space for local musicians. Marsalis put his focus on the center during his last decade.