Ellis Marsalis Jr. was born on Nov. 14, 1934, in New Orleans. Marsalis would go on to be an award-winning jazz musician and patriarch of one of the city’s most celebrated musical families.
Marsalis grew up in Gert Town. His parents, Ellis Marsalis Sr. and Florence Robertson Marsalis, owned the historic Marsalis Mansion Motel in Jefferson Parish.
Marsalis learned to play the clarinet at age 11 at Xavier University Junior School of Music in New Orleans. He also learned to play the saxophone and later the piano in high school.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Dillard University in 1955 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps two years later. Marsalis served for two years in Southern California. During this time, he played the piano with the Corps Four, a Marines jazz quartet, a marketing effort of the Marines that was showcased on TV and radio shows.
After leaving the military, Marsalis married Delores Ferdinand. The couple had six sons — Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya, and Jason. Four of his sons – Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, would go on to be well-known musicians in their own right.
Marsalis worked as an assistant manager at the Marsalis Mansion Motel and had a side gig as a pianist with the American Jazz Quintet. When he wasn’t playing in jazz clubs throughout New Orleans and as far as California, he was teaching.
In 1974, Marsalis was named the director of jazz studies at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. He earned a master’s degree from Loyola University in 1986. Marsalis then taught at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and later served as the director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans.
Several jazz artists studied under Marsalis including Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard, Victor Goines, Nicholas Payton, and Harry Connick Jr.
Marsalis retired from teaching in 2001. He received several honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Dillard University, as well as honorary degrees from Tulane University, The Juilliard School, Ball State, and Virginia Commonwealth University.
The musician died on April 1, 2020, at age 85, after being hospitalized for pneumonia as a result of the coronavirus.
“Ellis Marsalis was a legend,” said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell to The Times-Picayune following Marsalis’ passing. “He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz. … He was a teacher, a father, and an icon.”
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