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Dr. Billy Taylor and Ellis Marsalis playing Dizzy Gillespie’s classic, “A NIght in Tunisia.”
Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ellis Marsalis was the son of Florence (née Robertson) and Ellis Marsalis Sr., a businessman and social activist. Marsalis and his wife Delores Ferdinand had six sons: Branford, Wynton, Ellis III (1964), Delfeayo, Mboya (1971), and Jason. Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason also became jazz musician, Ellis III is a poet, photographer, and network engineer.
Marsalis played saxophone during high school but switched to piano while studying classical music at Dillard University, graduating in 1955. He later attended graduate school at Loyola University New Orleans. In the 1950s and 1960s he worked with Ed Blackwell, Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, and Al Hirt. During the 1970s he taught at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. His students have included Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Marlon Jordan, and Nicholas Payton.
Though he recorded almost twenty of his own albums, and was featured on many discs with such musicians as David “Fathead” Newman, Eddie Harris, Marcus Roberts, and Courtney Pine, he shunned the spotlight to focus on teaching. Marsalis’s didactic approach, combined with an interest in philosophy, encouraged his students to make discoveries in music on their own, through experiment and very careful listening.
As a leading educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana, Ellis influenced the careers of countless musicians, including Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton; as well as his four musician sons: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. Marsalis retired from UNO in 2001. In May 2007, Marsalis received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University for his contributions to jazz and musical education.
Marsalis was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2018.
The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music at Musicians’ Village in New Orleans is named in his honor. In 2010, The Marsalis Family released a live album titled Music Redeems which was recorded at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC as part of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival. All proceeds from the sale of the album go directly to the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.
Marsalis and his sons were group recipients of the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Award.
Marsalis is a Brother of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., initiated in 1953 at Epsilon Alpha Chapter, Dillard University.
Marsalis was a Brother of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia fraternity, initiated into Delta Epsilon Chapter (University of Louisiana-Lafayette) in 1965. In 2015 Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia announced that Marsalis has been named Sinfonia’s 24th Man of Music, the highest honor given by the fraternity to a member, for advancing the cause of music in America through performance, composition or any other musical activity.
On April 1, 2020, Marsalis died at the age of 85 after being hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.