In Memoriam: Ellis Marsalis

Published on: April 1st, 2020

906 Ellis Marsalis at WWOZ in 2013 [Photo by Bill Sasser]

Ellis Marsalis at WWOZ in 2013 [Photo by Bill Sasser]
Ellis Marsalis at WWOZ in 2013 [Photo by Bill Sasser]

Jazz great Ellis Marsalis, Jr. has passed away on April 1, 2020 at the age of 85. Marsalis was an influential player and educator in the jazz world for decades. He is survived by his sons Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya, and Jason.

Born November 14, 1934, Marsalis grew up in New Orleans’ Gert Town. Early on, he turned his style away from the popular Dixieland jazz of the time and towards bebop innovations. He soon formed a small combo with drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophonist Harold Battiste. They made their first recording as the American Jazz Quintet in 1956, the year after Marsalis graduated from Dillard University with a B.A. in Music Education. Shortly thereafter, Marsalis entered the Marine Corps and served a two-year stint. 

After his term of service was up, Marsalis returned to New Orleans where he began teaching, serving as band and choral director of Carver High School while also leading house trio at the Playboy Club on Bourbon St. In 1974, he joined the staff at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts where he would remain for twelve years before accepting a position as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans. He built the jazz program there over the course of 15 years and moved on in 2001. He performed very regularly until the very end of his life, including a standing weekly gig at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street through the end of 2019.

Marsalis recorded more than twenty albums throughout his career but his legacy may best be remembered through his many students. His careful and thorough approach to teaching encouraged students to make their own discoveries via experimentation and close listening. Many wonderful jazz performers passed through the classroom of Ellis Marsalis. His former pupils include Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Harry Connick, Jr. and, of course, his musician sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason.

In 2007, Marsalis received an honorary doctorate from Tulane for his contributions to jazz and musical education. He was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2011, he and his sons received a group Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Later that year, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music opened in the Upper 9th Ward’s Musicians’ Village. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from OffBeat Magazine in 2014.

If you have thoughts or memories you’d like to share, please leave a comment below. The entire WWOZ family sends its best wishes to his family and friends, and our appreciation for the many years of music and education he gave us, and the entire city.

We’d also like to share some of the many photos of Ellis Marsalis that we’ve collected over the years, plus part of his set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Center from December 15, 2018, below:

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