Rob Adams pays tribute to jazz pianist, educator and patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr, who passed away on 1 April. Ellis Marsalis, who has died aged eighty-five as a result of complications brought on by COVID-19, was a hugely resourceful musician whose influence extended far beyond his profile.
The pianist and father of six sons, four of whom – Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason – became prominent musicians, Marsalis preferred to pass on his skills and the jazz message through working in education and didn’t record his first album as a leader until he was in his forties. Thereafter he recorded for Blue Note and Columbia/Sony, including Joe Cool’s Blues, with Wynton, and Loved ones, with Branford, and for his own label, ELM.
Ellis Marsalis (centre) with sons Wynton, Delfeayo, Jason and Branford. Photo credit Jimmy Katz.
Although not a player in the traditional style associated with the Crescent City, preferring bebop, which he picked up on in his early teens, he came to embody the spirit of jazz from New Orleans. Whether at school, on the bandstand or socially he mentored a host of musicians including the trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Donald Harrison and pianist Harry Connick Jr. as well as his sons.
Marsalis was born and spent most of his life in New Orleans. His first instrument was the clarinet but he switched to tenor saxophone in high school, after hearing the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at a local concert, and played his first professional engagement at the age of thirteen. He played for strippers, comedians and dancers and his high school band played R&B for local dances but the serious playing came afterhours at jazz jam sessions.
On leaving high school, Marsalis studied classical music at Dillard University. By this time he was playing piano as well as saxophone and when fellow student and saxophonist Harold Battiste invited him to join his new bebop group with clarinettist Alvin Battiste, Marsalis became the group’s pianist.
Modern jazz players were thin on the ground in New Orleans at this time but the drummer Ed Blackwell was a bandmate and when he was invited to California to play with Ornette Coleman, Marsalis tagged along and played a few gigs, getting an early taste of where Coleman was heading.
Back in New Orleans, Marsalis worked in his father’s motel before joining the Marines. There he led a jazz quartet, the Corps Four, that played on television and radio as part of the Marines’ recruitment programme but if he hoped to be able to continue playing modern jazz full-time in New Orleans afterwards, he was disappointed. He returned to working at his father’s motel and played whatever gigs came his way.
As well as dates at the local Playboy Club, his diary included a recording session with Nat and Cannonball Adderley in 1962, which was released under Nat Adderley’s name as In the Bag. He also ran his own club, briefly, and then worked with New Orleans-born trumpeter Al Hirt, who gave Wynton his first trumpet and whose group appeared on national television in addition to playing locally. By this time Marsalis was married with two sons, Branford and Wynton, and as the family grew he realised he needed a stable income.
A position at Xavier University in New Orleans came up and in 1967 Marsalis began teaching improvisation there. He later moved to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he taught for ten years and spent four years at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond before taking up his final post at the University of New Orleans in 1989.
In 1981, the Marsalis name became known around the world when Wynton, after working alongside Branford in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, released his first album on Columbia. Fathers & Sons, featuring Wynton, Branford and Ellis Marsalis with Von and Chico Freeman, followed the next year and although Ellis continued to teach at the University of New Orleans his horizons broadened throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
He recorded King Midas and the Golden Touch with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Michael Caine narrating. He made albums with David Fathead Newman and Cornell Dupree, recorded with Jimmy Cobb, Eddie Harris, Courtney Pine, Harrick Connick Jr, Marcus Roberts, Makoto Ozone and the Count Basie Orchestra and teamed up with blues singer-guitarist Snooks Eaglin and soul queen Irma Thomas.
Marsalis retired from the University of New Orleans in 2001 and continued playing his long-standing Friday night residency at Snug Harbor, where he always welcomed promising young players to sit in, until December last year. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music at the Musicians’ Village in New Orleans was named in his honour in 2010. He and his sons received the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters Award in 2011 and he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2018. His wife, Dolores, died in 2017 and he is survived by his six sons and countless disciples who benefited from his philosophy that he didn’t teach jazz, he taught – and nurtured – students.