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Ellis Marsalis, Patriarch Of New Orleans' Most Famous Musical Family, Has Died

Ellis Marsalis performs during the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Music Festival.
Ellis Marsalis performs during the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Music Festival.

Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist, educator, and patriarch of the Marsalis family, has died at the age of 85. His death was announced in tweets from New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where his son Wynton is managing and artistic director.

He reportedly went into the hospital over the weekend with symptoms of pneumonia. The New York Times reports that his son Branford says the cause of death was complications from COVID-19.

Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born on Nov. 14, 1934. He graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans with a B.A. in music education, and that was the field to which he devoted himself. Despite playing with such notable jazz musicians as Cannonball and Nat Adderley, he was most proud of his work as an educator. His music students included Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Harry Connick Jr. and four of his sons: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis.

Ellis Marsalis taught at the first full-time public arts high school in New Orleans, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he instructed students on the harsh realities of pursuing a career in the arts.

The former Marine put it this way to NPR in 1985: "There is no such thing as fair. The world's not fair, it's not about being fair."

Marsalis went on to become Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond before returning to his hometown to teach at the University of New Orleans. Yet he still managed to record more than 15 albums of his own, in addition to collaborations with his sons.

And on top of all that, he played a weekly gig at a small New Orleans club, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, for three decades before retiring just this year.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 1, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misidentified New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell as LaToya Campbell. It also misspelled the last name of Nat Adderley as Adderly and misspelled Delfeayo Marsalis' first name as Delfayo.
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