Jazz legend Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the New Orleans musical family that includes his internationally acclaimed sons Wynton and Branford, has died. He was 85.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the death of the elder Marsalis on Wednesday night, describing him as “a legend, the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.” No cause of death was given, but Marsalis had reportedly been hospitalized with symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.
“He went out the way he lived: embracing reality,” Wynton Marsalis said in a Twitter post.
An acclaimed pianist, Marsalis was a major proponent of the bebop sound in the ’50s, when traditional jazz was the dominant style and rock ‘n’ roll was on the rise. Pursuing modern jazz, he worked alongside Nat and Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman and Ed Blackwell.
Marsalis recorded 20 albums as a bandleader, but he rejected the performer’s spotlight to focus on teaching, for which he became best known. He was a leading educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana. Along the way, he influenced the careers of Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton and many more.
Among his mentees, of course, were four of his six sons: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. Together, they were group recipients of the NEA Jazz Masters Award in 2011.
“With the deepest and most profound sadness, I grieve the passing of a true jazz master, icon of our culture, historic in the story of New Orleans, and profound in his influence in the evolution of music along with many lives,” actor Wendell Pierce wrote on Twitter. “Ellis Marsalis will be remembered as the singular catalyst for the thousands of musicians who will lead jazz through this 21st century. The multiplying effect of those artists he developed in theory, melody, and harmony will be heard around the world for decades to come.”
Marsalis’s wife Dolores died in 2017. He leaves his sons Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya and Jason.