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Ellis Marsalis: Pianist, Teacher And New Orleans Jazz Patriarch

Pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, photographed in 2008.
Andrew Bloomberg
Getty Images
Pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, photographed in 2008.

When the subject of jazz comes up, the name Marsalis is soon sure to follow. Brothers Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason have all reached international fame. But before they found success, their father Ellis was shaping his own career and lighting the way for others to follow.

Ellis Marsalis died on Wednesday, April 1. Over a lifetime in music, he achieved renown not only as a pianist and composer in his own right, but as one of the most influential music educators in the U.S. — imparting his extensive knowledge to students like pianist and vocalist Harry Connick Jr., trumpeter Terence Blanchard and of course, his four (of six) sons who followed his path into music.

Marsalis was born on Nov. 14, 1934, in New Orleans' Gert Town neighborhood, where his childhood friends and fellow musicians Roger Dickerson and Harold Battiste recall that music was everywhere. During the 1930s, New Orleans was very segregated, but jazz music often brought people of different social, cultural and even racial backgrounds together.

During the 1940s, New Orleans was the home of Dixieland jazz, but despite the music's popularity among visitors to the city, Marsalis didn't play or listen to it at the time. He was instead drawn to the bebop innovations he heard in the music of Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. He set his sights on bebop and formed a small combo with drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophonist Harold Battiste.

With its modern, almost avant-garde style, the group found little work in New Orleans, but it did get the attention of legendary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Originally from Texas and steeped in that state's R&B style, Coleman found himself at odds with most of the New Orleans jazz scene. He quickly left The Big Easy for California. Once he arrived, he asked Marsalis and the rest of the group to follow.

After the group arrived in California, they quickly realized that it was not exactly the promised land they had hoped to find. Even though their time out West was short-lived, they did manage to make their first recording in 1956 as The American Jazz Quintet. Marsalis soon returned to New Orleans and continued playing modern bebop, despite the limited support in the city. Things brightened up in 1963, when famed cornetist Nat Adderley and his brother, alto saxophonist and bandleader Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, came to New Orleans. The brothers recorded with Marsalis and several other local musicians on Nat's album In the Bag. The album dubbed Marsalis, drummer James Black and tenor saxophonist Nat Perrilliat as the "Down Home New Stars."

While Marsalis hustled to make ends meet in the late '50s and into the 1960s, he and his wife Delores had four children. He opened and briefly ran a jazz club, The Music Haven, in his father's hotel, Marsalis Mansion. But to put food on the table, Marsalis played Dixieland music with trumpeter Al Hirt. In the 1970s, he began studying music education at New Orleans' Loyola University — and in 1974, his future began to take shape as the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) named him director of its newly formed jazz studies program.

Many leading jazz artists today — alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Harry Connick Jr. — studied at NOCCA with Marsalis. It should come as no surprise that his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason also attended the Center. After 12 years at NOCCA , Ellis spent 13 years heading the jazz department at the University of New Orleans. Beyond teaching, he continued to perform around the world, as well as at home with a longstanding weekly gig at New Orleans' pre-eminent jazz club, Snug Harbor.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.