New Orleans Jazz Scene Patriarch: Ellis Marsalis 1934 – 2020

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One of the fathers of the New Orleans jazz scene, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. died on Wednesday, April 1 at age 85. Marsalis — the patriarch of a family featuring six sons, four of whom went into music — was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and was awaiting test results when he passed a family member told New Orleans’ WWL-TV. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell also confirmed the news.

“Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz,” said Mayor Cantrell in a statement. “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 — and words aren’t sufficient to describe the art, the joy and the wonder he showed the world. This loss cuts us deeply. May we wrap his family in our love and our gratitude, and may we honor his memory by coming together in spirit — even as the outbreak keeps us apart, for a time.”

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Marsalis continued to perform through his final year as he just ended a three-decade run at NOLA jazz club Snug Harbor in December. However, Ellis still served as a special guest from time-to-time at his home club and was slated to perform in New York City this September. The pianist’s career dates to back to his high school days and he collaborated with such iconic musicians as Cannonball Adderley, Al Hirt and Ed Blackwell in the 1950s and 60s. In 1963, Ellis struck out on his own and released his debut album, Monkey Puzzle, with the rest of the Ellis Marsalis Quartet.

Ellis took pride in the skills of his sons and often performed with them. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis and drummer Jason Marsalis each had accomplished and varied careers of their own. Not only did Ellis pass his knack for jazz music on to his sons, he also counts Irvin Mayfield, James Genus, Harry Connick Jr., Nicolas Payton and Terence Blanchard among those he taught during stints at Xavier University of Louisiana, the New Orleans Center For Creative Arts and the University of New Orleans.

The patriarch of the Marsalis family put out 20 albums as a bandleader, two with Branford, two with Delfeayo, four with Wynton and two under the Marsalis Family moniker, among records from other artists to which Ellis contributed. In 2008, Ellis Marsalis was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame. “He died the way he lived: embracing reality,” Wynton tweeted.

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