Ellis Marsalis Jr., jazz pianist, teacher and patriarch of a New Orleans musical clan that includes famed performer sons Wynton and Branford, has died after battling pneumonia brought on by the new coronavirus, one of his sons said late Wednesday.
He was 85.
Ellis Marsalis III confirmed in an Associated Press phone interview that his father’s death was sparked by the virus that is causing the global pandemic. “Pneumonia was the actual thing that caused his demise. But it was pneumonia brought on by COVID-19,” he said.
He said he drove Sunday from Baltimore to be with his father as he was hospitalized in Louisiana, which has been hit hard by the outbreak. Others in the family spent time with him, too.
Four of the jazz patriarch’s six sons are musicians: Wynton, trumpeter, is America’s most prominent jazz spokesman as artistic director of jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center. Branford, saxophonist, led The Tonight Show band and toured with Sting. Delfeayo, a trombonist, is a prominent recording producer and performer.
And Jason, a percussionist, has made a name for himself with his own band and as an accompanist. Ellis III, who decided music wasn’t his gig, is a photographer-poet in Baltimore.
In a statement, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said of the man who’d continued to perform regularly in New Orleans until December: “Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz. He was a teacher, a father, and an icon — and words aren’t sufficient to describe the art, the joy and the wonder he showed the world.”
Because 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 tour.
“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 a Tulane University anthropology professor.
The Marsalis “family band” seldom played together when the boys were younger but in 2003 toured 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 Marsalis’ students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, was a guest. He’s one of many now-famous jazz musicians who passed through Marsalis’ classrooms. Others include trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Victor Goines, and bassist Reginald Veal.
Marsalis was born in New Orleans, son of the operator of a hotel where Marsalis met touring black musicians who couldn’t stay at the segregated downtown hotels where they performed. He played saxophone in high school; he also played 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 1950s, Marsalis preferred bebop and modern jazz.
On Wednesday night, Ellis III recalled how his father taught him the meaning of integrity before he even knew the word.
He and Delfeayo, neither of them yet 10, had gone to hear their father play at a club. Only one man — sleeping and drunk — was in the audience for the second set. The boys asked why they couldn’t leave.
“He looked at us and said, `I can’t leave. I have a gig.’ While he’s playing, he said, ‘A gig is a deal. I’m paid to play this set. I’m going to play this set. It doesn’t matter that nobody’s here.’ “
Marsalis’ wife, Dolores, died in 2017. He is survived by his sons Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya and Jason.