Pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis died last week at 85 from COVID-19 complications.
The patriarch of the musical Marsalis family taught in New Orleans universities and at his own Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in the city’s 9th Ward. His students included jazz greats Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr. and his own sons Wynton and Branford.
Ellis Marsalis taught his students by exposing them to complicated music and “forcing” them to think for themselves, Branford Marsalis says. He had a very Socratic style of teaching.
“If I were to play something and say, 'So how was that?' He'd say, 'Well, how do you think it was?’ ” Branford Marsalis says.
Ellis Marsalis also helped his students understand that playing music is “a metaphor for life,” Branford Marsalis says.
“In your life, all you can do at any given time is the best that you can do at that time, and it is not a reflection on how you will be later,” he says. “And that was the best lesson that he could have ever given us for music and for our lives.”
Ellis Marsalis’ music was “very soulful,” his son says. He drew inspiration from jazz greats Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
“He had this beautiful sound on the instrument that when you listen to early recordings, a lot of the musicians had that sound because they were playing dance music, so you had to be able to project,” Branford Marsalis says. “And he had that and he could swing like nobody's business.”
When the 85-year-old developed a cough, his caretaker told the family he thought it was the coronavirus, Branford Marsalis says. “It wasn’t a shock” at first, he says, because older people are statistically more vulnerable to contracting the virus.
“But when it actually happened, it was such a blow. It was such a blow,” Branford Marsalis says of his father’s death. “I mean, today is the first day that I even feel halfway normal.”
He says he’s processing Ellis’ death the way his father would have — as a moment for reflection.
“Much like a lot of the music that I like, listening to mournful music, it requires a certain level of reflection and isolation to me,” he says. “I mean, some people want to be around as many people as possible, and I can understand that. But I think that at some point you have to deal with your own feelings about this, and it's better to start that sooner rather than later for me.”
This segment aired on April 6, 2020.