By Shelah Moody
On April 1, the music world lost one of its greatest influencers, New Orleans jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. At 85, Marsalis died of complications from the coronavirus global pandemic.
Media tributes poured in worldwide from his four successful sons, Wynton (trumpet), Branford (saxophone), Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums) as well as Harry Connick Jr., Herbie Hancock and the many musicians he tutored and mentored.
On April 6, Wynton Marsalis, despite executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, despite grieving in isolation, (jazz.org) used his live digital intimate weekly conversation, “Skain’s Domain” to pay tribute to his father with special guests Terrance Blanchard, Joey Alexander, Andre Carter, and others.
“He went out the way he lives: embracing reality,” Wynton posted on Instagram.
“My daddy was a humble man with a lyrical sound that captured the spirit of place--New Orleans, the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the Curve,” Branford posted on Twitter. “He was a stone-cold believer without extravagant tastes.”
Easter weekend, Delfeayo took to Facebook https://www.facebook.com/DelfeayoMarsalis/ for a live check-in thanking well-wishers sending their condolences and honoring his father. Delfeayo was quarantined at his home in New Orleans after being tested for coronavirus.
“As I reflect on the 1st Easter without my dad (well in fairness he wasn't one prone to much celebration about things) and the 3rd without my mother I'm reminded of their resolve to honor their commitment to family and sacrifice for their sons. Today I'll raise a glass to D & E (Dolores and Ellis) with love in my heart and a smile on my face!”
POPS, THE NINTH WARD, AND PANCAKES
During the summer of 2018, I had the privilege of experiencing Ellis Marsalis's legacy as a musician and educator first hand. I volunteered at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, the jewel of Ninth Ward, which nurtures the next generation of singers, composers, dancers and players of instruments. During youth piano recitals and new artist showcases, Marsalis was often on hand to lend his inspiration and support and then stopping for a cool glass of lemonade afterward.
Shortly after his passing, Michele Brierre, executive director of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, reflected on the passing of her friend.
“A true legend has passed but not without enriching the lives of so many of us whom he touched,” said Brierre. “Ellis Marsalis was a master educator with a unique ability to share his gifts and wisdom. As important, Ellis defined character. In how he lived his life, he set a worthy example for us all. It has been my life's great fortune and pleasure to work under Ellis' guidance for the past decade as the executive director of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. The Center lives on to fulfill the passion and to uphold the legacy of this great American treasure.”
That summer, thanks to Delfeayo Marsalis, I worked in Ellis Marsalis’ household as a caregiver for his adult autistic son, MBoya. I believe God placed me there for a reason: to learn humility, grace, and compassion. I would iron for elder Marsalis, aka Pops, and wash the dishes and make coffee, trying to work carefully and quietly around him as he read the morning paper, watched CNN from his favorite chair in the den or kept council with family members. One afternoon, I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Marsalis rehearsing on the piano upstairs! One Sunday morning after I arrived for my shift; he decided to make pancakes for the household and he asked me if I wanted some, too! They were delicious! I will always remember his kindness, generosity, good sense and good humor! Plus, he was one of the calmest people I’ve ever met. Real soulful.
During the summer of 2018, Ellis Marsalis’ Friday night set at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street was the hottest ticket in town. As soon as he hit the stage at Satchmofest, people rose to their feet. During July Fourth weekend, I accompanied Mr. Marsalis and his family to his performance at the 20th Annual Patriotic Music Fest at Trinity Church, where he jammed with the Marine Jazz Trio (see clip). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QkI0kYTt5w
Ellis Marsalis, an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Jazz master, was a strict and beloved educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana. He was a scholar and intellectual whose home was filled with books. On “Skain’s Domain,” Wynton remembered him encouraging him to read “Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramhansa Yoganamda.
“We lost a great pioneer in modern jazz piano artistry and music education advancement in Ellis Marsalis,” Herbie Hancock posted on Instagram. “He instilled in others, including his sons, led by Wynton and Branford, the fruits of his legacy, creating their own. May he Rest in Peace.”