NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Ellis Marsalis Jr., the jazz pianist, teacher and patriarch of a New Orleans musical clan, died April 1 from pneumonia brought on by the new coronavirus, leaving six sons and a deep legacy. He was 85.
“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,” Branford said.
Four of the jazz patriarch’s six sons are musicians: Wynton, a Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning trumpeter, is America’s most prominent jazz spokesman as artistic director of jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center. Branford, a saxophonist, has won three Grammies, 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 photographerpoet in Baltimore. Their brother Mboya has autism. Marsalis’ wife, Dolores, died in 2017.
“Pneumonia was the actual thing that caused his demise. But it was pneumonia brought on by COVID-19,” Ellis Marsalis III said in an Associated Press phone interview.
He said he drove Sunday from Baltimore to be with his father, who was hospitalized Saturday in Louisiana, which has been hit hard by the outbreak. Others in the family spent time with him, too.
“He went out the way he lived: embracing reality,” Wynton tweeted, alongside pictures of his father.
Branford’s statement included a text he said he got from Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins: “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.”
Because Marsalis opted to stay in New Orleans for most of his career, his reputation was limited until his sons became famous – Wynton has won nine Grammies and been nominated 33 times – 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 went on tour in 2003 in a spinoff of a family celebration, which became a PBS special when the elder Marsalis retired from teaching at the University of New Orleans.
Marsalis was born in New Orleans, son of the operator of a hotel where he 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. Marsalis joined the Marine Corps and was assigned to accompany soloists on the service’s weekly TV programs on CBS in New York. There, he said, he learned to handle all kinds of music styles.
His melodic style, with running improvisations in the right hand, has been described variously as romantic, contemporary, or simply “Louisiana jazz.” He was always on acoustic piano, never electric, and even in interpreting old standards there’s a clear link to the driving bebop chords and rhythms of his early years.
He founded a record company, ELM, but his recording was limited until his sons became famous. After that he joined them and others on mainstream labels and headlined his own releases, many full of his own compositions.