Legendary jazz pianist and teacher Ellis Marsalis Jr., the patriarch of New Orleans' great musical family, died Wednesday at 85 due to complications of coronavirus.
"It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my father, Ellis Marsalis Jr.," son Branford Marsalis said in a statement, saying his father was admitted to hospital on Saturday and "died peacefully this evening."
"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," Branford Marsalis said.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell marked Marsalis' passing with a statement posted on her Twitter account.
"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," Cantrell wrote.
Marsalis was a New Orleans legend who had just ended a three-decade run at New Orleans' Snug Harbor on Frenchman Street that ended in January. Marsalis told the club’s proprietor late last year it had become too exhausting to play his two 75-minute sets every Friday evening at the club.
But his fame was international, burnished by his musician family. Four of Marsalis' six sons are musicians: Wynton, a nine-time Grammy-winning trumpeter and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York; Branford, a saxophonist and musical director of the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" in the 1990s; Delfeayo, a trombonist; and Jason, a drummer.
Branford Marsalis quoted a text he received from Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins on his father. “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.”
His musical teaching went far beyond family. Marsalis nurtured countless musicians over the year at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Xavier University and the University of New Orleans. His students include trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard; singer/pianist Harry Connick Jr.; saxophonists Donald Harrison and Victor Goines; and bassist Reginald Veal.
Born on Nov. 14, 1934, the son of a New Orleans hotel operator, Marsalis began formal music studies at the Xavier University junior school of music at 11, playing clarinet and tenor saxophone. After high school, Marsalis enrolled in Dillard University (New Orleans) as a clarinet major, graduating in 1955.
Branford Marsalis told The Washington Post in 2009 that his father was in his 20s when he switched to the piano after realizing he would never equal the great saxophonists he heard. He passed on his clarinet to Branford and gave Wynton a trumpet (a gift from Ellis’ boss at the time, Bourbon Street legend Al Hirt).
To celebrate his teaching retirement in 2001, the entire Marsalis family performed, captured on the release "The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration." In 2008, Ellis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Marsalis’ wife, Dolores, died in 2017. He is survived by sons Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya and Jason.