By Cleveland Bryant Jr.
Special to the AFRO

Ellis Marsalis Jr., premier jazz pianist and jazz family patriarch-father of four sons, who are acclaimed jazz musicians themselves, died April 1 at a hospital in New Orleans. His oldest son, Branford, issued a statement, noting that his father succumbed to complications of the  coronavirus after checking into the hospital with the symptoms. He was 85.

Marsalis, a New Orleans native, was father to his accomplished world famous sons Wynton, Branford, Jason and Delfayo.

Yet it was Marsalis’s work as an educator that brought him the most praise and most professional satisfaction. Despite the international success of his sons Marsalis recalls not wanting a family band.

Pianist And Patriarch Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (Photos by Cleveland Bryant Jr.)

“In a family band the patriarch tends to dominate, and that can stifle the creativity of individual members,” he said.

“Sometimes the family can become economically dependent on the group; besides, I don’t like being the center of attention.”

To his credit Marsalis developed the independent and improvisational styles of a whole host of today’s young jazz musicians. In addition to his sons he mentored the likes of Terrence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Marlon Jordan, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison and Kent Jordan.

All these musicians were his students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts-a prestigious public arts high school where he directed the jazz program.

Marsalis was born Nov. 14, 1934, and played the saxophone professionally while still in high school, before switching to piano.

In 1956, after graduating from Dillard University, he spent some time on the West Coast playing in jazz clubs with bandmates Harold Batiste and Ed Blackwell.

Before long Marsalis returned to New Orleans and signed up for a two-year stint in the Marine Corp. It was during this time that Marsalis fine-tuned his accompaniment skills on “Dress Blues”-a television music program sponsored by the Corp.

After the Marines, Marsalis led his own group at the original Playboy Club in Chicago, followed by three years with Al Hirt. Marsalis also toured with Nat and Cannonball Adderly. Marsalis then returned to his teaching career. During the decades that followed, he taught at Xavier University of New Orleans, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of New Orleans where he was the department head and a jazz professor. 

Marsalis received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University in 2007 for his contributions to jazz and music education. He recorded dozens of original albums and was a sideman for countless musicians. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2018 and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music at the Musicians’s Village in New Orleans is named in his honor. Marsalis insisted the Center provide a diverse range of resources to low-income adult musicians from New Orleans.

Marsalis and his sons were group recipients of the coveted NEA Jazz Master Award in 2011. 

Marsalis was predeceased by his wife Delores. He is survived by his sons, Branford, Wynton, Jason, Delfayo, Mbayo, Ellis III and several grandchildren.