Ellis Marsalis Dead: Legendary New Orleans Pianist Dies at 85

Ellis Marsalis death

Getty Pianist Ellis Marsalis attends the Jazz at Lincoln Center 2017 Gala

Legendary pianist Ellis Marsalis passed away on April 1, 2020. A cause of death was not immediately revealed. The 85-year-old jazz master had been hospitalized and tested for coronavirus but had not received the results prior to his death, a family member told WWL-TV anchor Eric Paulsen.

The tragic news of Marsalis’ passing was confirmed by WDSU reporter Gina Swanson, who received the information from the director of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

Following the news of Marsalis’ passing, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the world lost “a legend” today:

He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz. The love and the prayers of all of our people go out to his family, and to all of those whose lives he touched. 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. This loss cuts us deeply. May we wrap his family in our love and our gratitude, and may we honor his memory by coming together in spirit — even as the outbreak keeps us apart, for a time.

Four of Marsalis’ sons — Branford, a saxophonist; Wynton, a trumpeter; Delfeayo, a trombonist; and Jason, a drummer — all followed in his footsteps and became famous jazz musicians in their own right. He had two more sons, Elli III and Mboya, but they didn’t catch the music bug.

His wife, Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, mother of all six boys, preceded the pianist in death. After suffering from pancreatic cancer, she passed away at age 80 on July 18, 2017. The couple met in New Orleans at a Dinah Washington concert at Lincoln Beach in 1956. Following her death, Marsalis recalled, “She really liked music. I didn’t know many girls who liked jazz at that time.”

After 30 Years, Marsalis Retired From His Weekly Show On Frenchman Street In December 2019

Ellis Marsalis – "Homecoming"Ellis Marsalis is a father figure of modern jazz — in quite a few ways. As a pianist, he was among the first generation of musicians to bring bebop to New Orleans, and even worked with Ornette Coleman before the saxophonist recorded his landmarks of free jazz. As an educator, many great musicians came through…2015-08-07T16:08:05.000Z

After three decades of performing at Snug Harbor in New Orleans every Friday, Marsalis announced that at age 85, it was too exhausting to play his 75-minute sets back to back. The final two shows on December 27, 2019, were completely sold out.

Marsalis was not completely retiring, however — he promised to still perform at the club as a “special guest,” with fellow musicians joining him for a 35-minute set instead.

He had upcoming tour dates in New York City from September 3 to September 6 to perform at the Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

Marsalis Was World-Renowned Instructor & Mentor to Harry Connick Jr.

Pre-Concert Talk with Ellis MarsalisUp close and personal, SFJAZZ Education highlighted its 2011 Spring Season Pre-Concert Talk program with an intimate conversation between two NEW Jazz Masters: Ellis Marsalis and Dan Morgenstern. Marsalis discusses his close-knit and extraordinarily musical family, his journey as a pianist and days as a side-musician, observations on other jazz greats such as Harry Connick…2011-06-03T17:49:41.000Z

Not only could Marsalis play the piano, but he was also a heralded teacher. Born on November 14, 1934, he started studying music when he was 11 years old. He studied at Dillard University in New Orleans as a clarinet major and graduated with a BFA in 1955.

While serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was stationed in California, Marsalis fine-tuned his piano skills. After marrying Dolores and having four of their children, they moved to Breux Bridge in Louisiana, where Marsalis started his career as a teacher, becoming the choral director at Carver High School.

Later on, Marsalis earned his Masters at Loyola University, and following graduation was hired to teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school. He taught there for 12 years as the instrumental music instructor with a jazz studies focus.

Harry Connick Jr. & Branford Marsalis at the Ellis Marsalis Center for MusicOn Thursday, August 25, 2011, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. performed "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans" at the Grand Opening of The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans' lower ninth ward.2011-08-27T23:39:48.000Z

In 1986, Marsalis became the Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in 1989 he received an Honorary Doctorate degree from Dillard. A few of his students who went on to become wildly successful musicians include Terence Blanchard, a trumpeter and composer, pianist and vocalist Harry Connick Jr., saxophonists Donald Harrison and Victor Goines and bassist Reginald Veal.

Tributes To The Legendary Musician From John Legend & More Filled Social Media

While Marsalis recorded over 20 albums during his lifetime, his focus was never becoming a household name, it was passing on the art of jazz to his students. On December 7, 2002, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans is named after him. In 2011, Marsalis and his four musician sons all received the NEA Jazz Masters Award.

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