"My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father," Branford wrote. "He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be. And to quote my friend and Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins who just sent me the following text: 'We can all marvel at the sheer audacity of a man who believed he could teach his black boys to be excellent in a world that denied that very possibility, and then watch them go on to redefine what excellence means for all time.'"
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born in New Orleans on November 14, 1934, and played tenor saxophone before making the switch to piano in his high school years. In 1955, Marsalis earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Dillard University in New Orleans and would teach high school music before enlisting in the Marine Corps in the late 1950s.
Marsalis returned to teaching and performance after leaving the Marines and went on to play with the likes of Ed Blackwell, brothers Cannonball and Nat Adderley, and Al Hirt.
Marsalis received master's degree in music education from Loyola University in New Orleans and, in the 1970s, led the jazz studies program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts for high school students. While there, Marsalis would mentor future stars such as Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr. and Donald Harrison, in addition to his sons.
Marsalis later taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of New Orleans, where he served for 12 years as the founding director of its jazz studies department.
Marsalis is the father of the father of Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis. Grandson Jasper Marsalis is known best as Slauson Malone, a former member of American experimental outfit Standing on the Corner.
Marsalis made his solo debut with 1978's Solo Piano Reflections and would go on to record over 15 more albums as a bandleader over the course of his life. His recording catalogue also includes appearances alongside his sons as a sideman.
In 2018, Marsalis was inducted into the the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
"Ellis Marsalis was a legend," New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell wrote on Twitter following his passing. "He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz. The love and the prayers of all of our people go out to his family, and to all of those whose lives he touched."
Ellis Marsalis was an icon — and words aren't sufficient to describe the art, the joy & the wonder he showed the world. May we wrap his family in our love & our gratitude, & may we honor his memory by coming together in spirit— even as the outbreak keeps us apart, for a time. pic.twitter.com/evIBCJk7Z3— Mayor LaToya Cantrell (@mayorcantrell) April 2, 2020