New Orleans jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis dead at 85

Mr. Marsalis was a regular at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Associated Press/2019
Mr. Marsalis was a regular at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

NEW ORLEANS — Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist, teacher, and patriarch of a New Orleans musical family that includes famed musician sons Wynton and Branford, died Wednesday of pneumonia brought on by the novel coronavirus, his son Ellis III said. He was 85.

Mr. Marsalis had continued to perform regularly in New Orleans until December. Two summers ago, he appeared at the Tanglewood Music Festival in the Berkshires.

Because Mr. Marsalis opted to stay in New Orleans for most of his career, his reputation was limited until his sons became famous and brought him the spotlight, along with new recording contracts and headliner performances on television and on tour.


Four of his six sons are musicians: Wynton, the trumpeter, is America’s most prominent jazz spokesman as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Branford, the saxophonist, led The Tonight Show band and toured with Sting. Delfeayo, trombonist, is a prominent recording producer and performer. And Jason, the drummer, has made a name for himself with his own band and as an accompanist. Ellis III, who decided music was not his gig, is a photographer-poet in Baltimore.

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‘‘He was like the coach of jazz. He put on the sweatshirt, blew the whistle, and made these guys work,’’ said Nick Spitzer, host of public radio’s “American Routes” and an anthropology professor at Tulane University.

The Marsalis ‘‘family band’’ seldom played together when the boys were younger, but in 2003 they toured up East in a spinoff of a family celebration that became a PBS special when the elder Marsalis retired from teaching at the University of New Orleans.

Harry Connick Jr., one of Mr. Marsalis’ students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, was a guest. He is just one of the many now-famous jazz musicians who passed through the Marsalis classrooms; others include trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Victor Goines, and bassist Reginald Veal.

Mr. Marsalis was born in New Orleans, son of the operator of a hotel. Young Ellis Marsalis met touring black musicians who could not stay at the segregated downtown hotels where they performed. He played saxophone in high school but was also playing piano by the time he went to Dillard University.


Although New Orleans was steeped in traditional jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll was the new sound in the city’s studios in the 1950s, Mr. Marsalis preferred bebop and modern jazz. His college quartet included drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophonist Harold Battiste.

Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Mr. Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Mr. Marsalis came back home.

He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.

Back in New Orleans, Mr. Marsalis joined the Marine Corps and was assigned to accompany soloists on the service’s weekly TV programs on CBS in New York. It was there, he said, that he learned to handle all kinds of music styles.

On returning home, he worked at the Playboy Club and ventured into running his own club, which went bust. In 1967, trumpeter Al Hirt hired him. When not on Bourbon Street, Hirt’s band was appearing on national TV — doing headline shows on “The Tonight Show’’ and “The Ed Sullivan Show,’’ among others.


Mr. Marsalis got into education about the same time, teaching improvisation at Xavier University in New Orleans, and in the mid-1970s he joined the faculty at the New Orleans magnet high school, where he influenced a new generation of young jazz musicians.

When asked how he could teach something as free-wheeling as jazz improvisation, he once said, ‘‘We don’t teach jazz, we teach students.’’

In 1986, he moved to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond as coordinator of Jazz Studies, a post he kept until 1989, when the University of New Orleans lured him back to set up a program of jazz studies at home.

Mr. Marsalis retired from the university in 2001, but continued to perform, particularly at Snug Harbor in New Orleans, a small jazz club that anchored the city’s contemporary jazz scene — frequently backing young musicians who had promise.

His melodic style, with running improvisations in the right hand, has been described variously as romantic, contemporary, or simply ‘‘Louisiana jazz.’’ He is always on acoustic piano, never electric, and even in interpreting the old standards there’s a clear link to the driving bebop chords and rhythms of his early years.

He founded his own record company, ELM,but his recording was limited until his sons became famous.

After that he joined them and other musicians on mainstream labels and headlined his own releases, many full of his own compositions.

Mr. Marsalis’ wife, Dolores, died in 2017. He is survived by his sons Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya, and Jason.

Mr. Marsalis and his son Wynton closed out the Tanglewood season in 2018 with their separate groups. Before the concert, Wynton Marsalis explained to The Boston Globe the importance for him of not having a backup plan to music as he was entering the field instead of going to college on an academic scholarship.

“My mama was like, ‘If you go into music you’re going to struggle just like your daddy did. There’s no money in this. He’s struggled his entire life. You’ve seen it,’’’ the trumpeter said.

Then he turned to his father. “He said, ‘Don’t have nothing to fall back on.’

“He was right, because you have to do it,’’ Wynton Marsalis explained. “If you have a way to not do it, you’re going to find that way.”