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Ellis Marsalis Jr. (1934 – 2020), New Orleans jazz piano legend

Ellis Marsalis Jr. (1934–2020), New Orleans jazz piano legend

by Linnea Crowther

Ellis Marsalis Jr. was a well-known New Orleans jazz pianist who was the patriarch of a musical family including sons Branford and Wynton Marsalis.

  • Died: April 1, 2020 (Who else died on April 1?)
  • Details of death: Died from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 85.
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A musician and a teacher

Marsalis was an integral part of the New Orleans jazz scene for decades, beginning not long after he graduated from the city’s Dillard University after studying classical piano. He started off playing with other establish musicians — Al Hirt, Bob French, Cannonball Adderly — and he recorded dozens of albums, solo and with other musicians. But the focus of Marsalis’ career was teaching his art to new generations. He began teaching jazz at Xavier University, then took a position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a training center for artistically inclined high school students. Marsalis also joined the faculty at the University of New Orleans, where he helped establish the university’s Jazz Studies program. At the two institutions, Marsalis taught future greats including Terence Blanchard and Harry Connick Jr. As he taught, he was also a working musician, playing in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.

Musical patriarch

Marsalis was the father of six sons, four of whom followed in his footsteps and became jazz musicians. None made a name as a pianist, like their father — Branford Marsalis is a jazz saxophonist, Wynton Marsalis is a renowned trumpeter playing both jazz and classical music, Delfeayo Marsalis is a jazz trombonist and music producer, and Jason Marsalis is a jazz drummer.


Marsalis on playing jazz in high school

“When I was in school, you could get expelled for playing jazz. The dean would get a report that we were over there ruining pianos playing jazz on them.” —from a 2000 interview

What people said about him

“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 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. …This loss cuts us deeply.” —New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell

“I mourn the passing of Ellis with his family and the people of his beloved New Orleans. He was a great musician, great teacher and a friend.” —filmmaker Ken Burns

“New Orleans has truly lost a piece of our heart that we will never be able to fill. I mourn the loss of our beloved jazz icon, Ellis Marsalis Jr. His music will forever fill our hearts with joy and our streets with melodies. May his soul rest in paradise.” —U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond

Full obituary: The Times-Picayune

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