Ellis Marsalis, Jazz Pianist and Educator, Dies at age 85

April 2, 2020


The Music Institute of Chicago joins the larger music community in mourning the loss of Ellis Marsalis. A respected jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the Marsalis family, he passed away April 1 following complications from COVID-19. Born in New Orleans in 1934, Marsalis, as New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a tweet, “was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.”


Marsalis performed with jazz greats Cannonball Adderly and Nat Adderly, Ornette Coleman, and others, but was perhaps proudest of his work as an educator. His students include some of the finest jazz musicians of our time: Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, and Harry Connick Jr. He taught at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana and received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University for his contributions to jazz and music education.


Father of six sons, he influenced the careers of countless musicians, including his musician sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason (who is scheduled to perform at Nichols Concert Hall as part of the Marcus Roberts Trio later this year).  Wynton said of his father, “His example for all of us who were his students (a big extended family from everywhere), showed us to be patient and to want to learn and to respect teaching and thinking and to embrace the joy of seriousness.” Ellis Marsalis' oldest son, saxophonist Branford, crossed musical genres working with jazz giants Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, as well as pop great Sting, the Grateful Dead, and Public Enemy. Wynton, currently Managing and Artistic Director for Jazz at Lincoln Center, is well-known for straddling jazz and classical music, becoming the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize in music for his dramatic oratorio Blood on the Fields. Wynton was the recipient of the Music Institute of Chicago’s 2019 Dushkin Award.


Branford said in a statement: “My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father. He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be. My friend and Harvard Law professor David Wilkins just sent me the following text: ‘We can all marvel at the sheer audacity of a man who believed he could teach his black boys to be excellent in a world that denied that very possibility, and then watch them go on to redefine what excellence means for all time.’”



Watch a 2015 tribute to Ellis Marsalis - "Homecoming"
- Jazz Night in America >>

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