Ellis Marsalis Jr, Jazz Legend and father of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Dies at 85 of COVID-19 Complications

Ellis Marsalis also taught generations of jazz musicians

Ellis Marsalis Getty Images
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Ellis Marsalis Jr., New Orleans jazz legend known as a pianist and teacher as well as the father of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, died Wednesday from complications of COVID-19. He was 85.

According to his son, Ellis Marsalis III, Marsalis died after developing pneumonia. “I was with him in the hospital for six or seven hours yesterday. Branford was with him Monday, I was with him yesterday and Jason was with him today. He passed right after Jason departed,” Ellis Marsalis III told the Associated Press.

Born in 1934 in New Orleans, Marsalis studied at Dillard University and later Loyola University New Orleans, and after graduation established himself as a highly sought after teacher, instructing people who would go on to become some of the biggest names in contemporary jazz. Among his famous students are Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., and Marlon Jordan.

Marsalis also had a prolific recording career, recording nearly 20 albums and appearing on works by greats including Eddie Harris and Courtney Pine. He also founded a musical dynasty, as four of his six sons became notable musicians as well. Branford Marsalis is a saxophonist and composer who served as bandleader for “The Tonight Show” from 1992-1995. Wynton Marsalis is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and among other achievements is the first jazz musician to win a Pulitzer for music. Meanwhile, Delfeayo Marsalis is a trombonist and record producer, and Jason Marsalis is a drummer and vibraphonist. Ellis III, meanwhile, is a photographer and poet.

In 2008, Marsalis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. He is also the namesake for the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music at Musicians’ Village in New Orleans, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tulane University in 2007, and along with his sons won the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award.

“Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement. “The love and the prayers of all of our people go out to his family, and to all of those whose lives he touched.”

“Ellis Marsalis was an icon — and words aren’t sufficient to describe the art, the joy & the wonder he showed the world,” Cantrell continued. “May we wrap his family in our love & our gratitude, & may we honor his memory by coming together in spirit– even as the outbreak keeps us apart, for a time.”