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ELLIS MARSALIS,
1934-2020

Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of the New Orleans jazz family and an educator of generations of the city’s musicians, died Wednesday from complications of Covid-19. He was 85.

“My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father,” his son, Branford Marsalis, said in a statement announcing his father’s death. “He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be.”

Marsalis, father of trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer-vibist Jason, performed and recorded throughout the 1960s and ’70s after earning a bachelor’s degree in music education from Dillard University and serving in the Marines. After earning a master’s degree in music education from Loyola University, he led the jazz studies program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts for high school students. There, his students included Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton and Harry Connick Jr., as well as his own children.

He later taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of New Orleans.

In a Facebook post, Wynton Marsalis wrote: “His example for all of us who were his students (a big extended family from everywhere), showed us to be patient and to want to learn and to respect teaching and thinking and to embrace the joy of seriousness. He taught us that you could be conscious and stand your ground with an opinion rooted ‘in something’ even if it was overwhelmingly unfashionable. And that if it mattered to someone, it mattered.”

When Wynton and Branford emerged in the 1980s as a new generation of musicians working in the be-bop and hard bop idioms of the 1940s and ‘50s, Ellis’s national profile rose as well. Prior to his sons’ emergence, Ellis rarely recorded. He released his debut as a leader, Syndrome, in 1985 and would release six albums for Columbia in 1990s.

He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2011.

In December, Marsalis was in the news for retiring from his weekly gig at the New Orleans jazz club Snug Harbor that he had held for decades.

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