By Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Ellis Marsalis Jr., jazz pianist, teacher and patriarch of a New Orleans musical clan that includes famed performer sons Wynton and Branford, has died after battling pneumonia brought by the new coronavirus, one of his sons said late Wednesday.
He was 85.
Ellis Marsalis III confirmed in a phone interview with The Associated Press that his father’s death was brought about by the virus that is causing the global pandemic.
“Pneumonia was the actual thing that caused his demise. But it was pneumonia brought on by COVID-19,” said the younger Marsalis, speaking of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
He said he drove from Baltimore on Sunday to be with his father as he was hospitalized. He said others in the family also were able to spend time with their father.
Four of the jazz patriarch’s six sons are musicians: Wynton, the trumpeter, is America’s most prominent jazz spokesman as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Branford, the saxophonist, led The Tonight Show band and toured with Sting. Delfeayo, trombonist, is a prominent recording producer and performer. And Jason, the drummer, has made a name for himself with his own band and as an accompanist. Ellis III, who decided music was not his gig, is a photographer-poet in Baltimore.
Said Ellis III: “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.”
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the musician’s death in a somber news release Wednesday night. The elder Marsalis had continued to perform regularly in New Orleans until December.
“Ellis Marsalis was a legend. He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz,” Cantrell said in her 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.”
Because Marsalis opted to stay in New Orleans for most of his career, his reputation was limited until his sons became famous and brought him the spotlight, along with new recording contracts and headliner performances on television and on tour.
“He was like the coach of jazz. He put on the sweatshirt, blew the whistle and made these guys work,” said Nick Spitzer, host of public radio’s American Routes and an anthropology professor at Tulane University.
The Marsalis “family band” seldom played together when the boys were younger, but in 2003 toured up East in a spinoff of a family celebration that became a PBS special when the elder Marsalis retired from teaching at the University of New Orleans.
Harry Connick Jr., one of Marsalis’ students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, was a guest. He is just one of the many now-famous jazz musicians who passed through the Marsalis classrooms; others include trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Victor Goines, and bassist Reginald Veal.
Marsalis was born in New Orleans, son of the operator of a hotel where Marsalis met touring black musicians who could not stay at the segregated downtown hotels where they performed. He played saxophone in high school but was also playing piano by the time he went to Dillard University.
Although New Orleans was steeped in traditional jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll was the new sound in the city’s studios in the 1950s, Marsalis preferred bebop and modern jazz.