Patriarch Of New Orleans Musical Family, Ellis Marsalis, Dies At 85

Apr 2, 2020
Originally published on April 2, 2020 6:40 pm

Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist, educator and patriarch of the Marsalis family, has died. His music students included Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Harry Connick, Jr., and 4 of his sons.

: 4/02/20

In this report, we incorrectly refer to Ellis Marsalis III as Ellis Marsalis Jr.

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Ellis Marsalis, the pianist, educator and patriarch of the most celebrated family in jazz, died Wednesday in New Orleans. He was 85 and died of complications from the coronavirus. Ellis and his wife Dolores raised six sons, and four of them became jazz musicians - Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. He was also a mentor to generations of other musicians.

Gwen Thompkins is host of the program Music Inside Out, which airs on WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio, and she joins us now on the line. Gwen, I mean, this is just such a huge loss, isn't it?

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Rachel, it's a terrible loss. This is a terrible loss to a city that has taken quite a few blows in recent years in losing great musicians. Ellis Marsalis was as committed to being a teacher as he was to being a performer, and he helped teach the whole city how to appreciate modern jazz. I mean, this was - you know, this is the city - this is the home of Louis Armstrong, you know? And - but he made modern jazz something that everybody kind of wanted to know something about. Even the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music here, they called him a master educator.

Ellis Marsalis, he came up in the 1940s and '50s, when there was absolutely no audience for modern jazz in New Orleans - no gigs, no nothing - no schools, even. And - but by the end of his life, you know, he had inspired nearly every musician from New Orleans or who had studied in New Orleans, and that would include Terence Blanchard. That would include Donald Harrison, Harry Connick Jr., Herlin Riley, Nicholas Payton, Brian Blade and, of course, Mr. Marsalis' four sons - actually, five of them because his nonmusical son, Ellis Marsalis Jr. (ph), actually was - is a poet and wrote poetry about his father.

MARTIN: Tell us more about that influence, the influence he had on his own kids.

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, the thing about Ellis Marsalis is that he told me that he never tried to, in his - all of his teaching years, tried to make a musician out of a kid. What he tried to do was wait for the kid to show some kind of interest in the music. He was waiting for the music to speak to the child. And then he would facilitate, as he said. And he would, you know, he would introduce the student to other musicians, and the recordings of other musicians that they should be listening to.

And according to his sons and Harry Connick Jr., of course, you know, he also gave very brutal but very useful advice to performers, and they took that advice and honored him many years later with his own center that was built by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

MARTIN: So as we think about him and his legacy today, I mean, what piece should we play right now to remember him, do you think?

THOMPKINS: Well, you know, Ellis Marsalis, he could play anything, but he loved ballads, and he wrote some wonderful ones. And one of my favorites is a song called "When We First Met."


THOMPKINS: And I hope we play that one. It's just gorgeous.


MARTIN: Gwen Thompkins, the host of Music Inside Out, remembering the great Ellis Marsalis. Thank you so much, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLIS MARSALIS' "WHEN WE FIRST MET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.