ellis marsalis
Credit: Leon Morris/Redferns

Ellis Marsalis, famed jazz musician, teacher to stars like Harry Connick, Jr., and patriarch to one of New Orleans great musical families, died at age 85 as a result of coronavirus complications on Wednesday.

His son, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, said in a statement to EW, "It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my father, Ellis Marsalis Jr., as a result of complications from the coronavirus. He was admitted to the hospital on Saturday and died peacefully this evening."

He added, "My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father.  He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be."

Branford also shared a quote from his friend and Harvard Law Professor David Wilkins, who texted him on Sunday, "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.”

Another of Marsalis' sons, famed trumpeter Wynton, tweeted Wednesday night, "Ellis Marsalis, 1934 - 2020. He went out the way he lived: embracing reality."

Earlier in the day, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a statement on Marsalis' death, saying, "Ellis Marsalis was a legend. 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."

The New Orleans Advocate previously reported that Marsalis had been hospitalized and was tested for COVID-19, but the results were still pending when he died.

A New Orleans icon, Marsalis released nearly 20 albums and appeared on records with artists like David "Fathead" Newman, Courtney Pine, Marcus Roberts, and Eddie Harris.

The pianist is perhaps best known for teaching and molding the careers of other musicians, including many of his own children. He was an educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans, and Xavier University. Marsalis' past students include Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, and Nicholas Payton.

Marsalis had six sons, four of whom are also musicians, including Wynton, the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In 2007, Branford teamed up with Connick, Jr. to found the Musician's Village in New Orleans, which was built by Habitat for Humanity. Its centerpiece is the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, named in honor of the late legend.  A year later, Marsalis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

John Legend was one of the first celebrities to mourn Marsalis' passing on social media.

"Sending love to the Marsalis family. Condolences to them and all of those who loved Ellis Marsalis," Legend tweeted. "He was the patriarch of such an influential musical family. Thank you, Ellis Marsalis."


The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which provides instruction in music and the arts, academic support, and even basic food security for hundreds of kids from New Orleans' 9th Ward, is accepting donations in Marsalis' honor. Click here for more information.

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