Ellis Marsalis Jr., Jazz Pianist and Patriarch of a Musical Family, Dies at 85


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Ellis Marsalis Jr., a pianist and educator who became the guiding force behind a late-20th-century resurgence in jazz and who helped to shape the musical careers of four sons, died on Wednesday at a hospital in New Orleans. He was 85.

The cause was complications of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, his son Branford said.

Mr. Marsalis had spent decades as a working musician and educator in his native New Orleans — mentoring his own children as well as many other young musicians — before his sons Wynton and Branford found fame in the early 1980s.

Mr. Marsalis’s star soon rose as well, and before long he was a household name. In New Orleans, his devotion to bebop and its offshoots branded him as an outsider; it also put him on the progressive end of the stylistic spectrum in a city where most musicians stuck to a more traditional style rooted in the early 20th century. On the national stage, his family’s promotion of straight-ahead jazz turned Mr. Marsalis and his extravagantly talented young sons into the shepherds of a new movement in jazz.

“Ellis Marsalis was a legend,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night. “He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.”

In 1979, when Mr. Marsalis played regular gigs at the Carnegie Tavern, at West 56th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, The New York Times noted that he eschewed the traditional New Orleans stylings of many of his peers, and described him instead as “an eclectic performer with a light and graceful touch, but more exploratory turn of mind.”

Ellis L. Marsalis was born in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1934.

His father, Ellis L. Marsalis Sr., who died in 2004, was involved in the civil rights movement as the owner of the Marsalis Motel in suburban New Orleans; its guests included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from New York, the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the musician Ray Charles.

Though he became a prominet jazz musician in his own right, Mr. Marsalis Jr. was perhaps best known as a mentor to his children, four of whom followed their father into careers in jazz.

Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter and composer, became the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1997. Branford became a world-renowned saxophonist and bandleader with multiple Grammy Awards; Delfeayo, a trombonist; and Jason, a drummer.

Mr. Marsalis earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from Dillard University in 1955, and played jazz until enlisting in the Marine Corps the following year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. He became a member of the Corps Four, a Marines jazz quartet that performed on television and radio to increase recruiting efforts, the endowment said.

In the 1970s, he earned a master’s degree in music education at Loyola University, according to the endowment, and went on to teach at the Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of New Orleans, where he led the jazz department for 12 years.

In 2008, Mr. Marsalis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts gave the family a “jazz masters” award in recognition of its many contributions to American music and culture.

Mr. Marsalis’s wife, Dolores, died in 2017. He is survived by his sons, Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, MBoya and Jason; his sister Yvette; and 13 grandchildren.

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