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Ellis Marsalis, New Orleans Jazz Patriarch, Dies at 85

Ellis Marsalis performs during the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 7, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Ellis Marsalis performs during the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 7, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

If the heart of American music lies in New Orleans, it’s certain that one of its arteries or ventricles passes with Ellis Marsalis, who died Wednesday (April 1) at 85 years old. He had been hospitalized in New Orleans for pneumonia-like symptoms over the weekend and was tested for the coronavirus but results aren’t yet available, according to a report from New Orleans’ WWL-TV.

“He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement. “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.”

Ellis Marsalis Jr. shared a name with his father, a prominent hotelier and civil rights activist in New Orleans, but it was the younger Ellis who would forever attach the Marsalises to the very core of jazz music. Beginning as a clarinetist while he was still in elementary school, Marsalis soon homed in on what would be his lifelong passion with a degree in music education from Dillard University.

By then, Marsalis had mostly switched to piano -- the instrument that occasionally brought him onto the national stage as a young man alongside artists from Ornette Coleman to Nat and Cannonball Adderley. But he never stayed away from his hometown for too long, especially once he and his wife Dolores started their family.

Marsalis took a teaching position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School in the early 1970s and soon became one of the city’s most renowned musical educators. Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton would all eventually learn jazz piano, composition and improvisation from the maestro. Marsalis became the first chair of the now-storied jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1989, a post from which he retired in 2001. His legacy as an educator endures at the Ellis Marsalis Center, a nonprofit music and performing arts facility in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.

It was Marsalis’ tutelage of his and Dolores’ six sons -- Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya Kenyatta and Jason -- though, that eventually earned him the title of patriarch of the First Family of Jazz. Branford and Wynton, in particular, had an indelible impact on the jazz world, shaping both the genre’s neoclassical and fusion branches through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Wynton would go on to lead Jazz at Lincoln Center, the foremost jazz institution and venue in the country, where Ellis was slated to perform this fall.

Throughout his career as an educator, helping some of jazz’s most successful and influential artists come into their own, Marsalis never stopped performing, recording albums of his own with artists like Eddie Harris and David “Fathead” Newman. He played at New Orleans’ Snug Harbor club every Friday for more than 30 years, a ritual he only just retired from last year. Marsalis had planned to return to the club, though, for shows around this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

It was that blend of on-the-ground cred as a performer and thoughtful, pointed jazz pedagogy that made Marsalis such an irreplaceable member of the New Orleans -- and jazz, and thus musical -- community. He saw no other way to live his beloved New Orleans jazz tradition than to teach it to the next generation, and the fruits of that labor were nothing short of essential.