Ellis Marsalis, a pianist and educator who became the guiding force behind a late-20th-century resurgence in jazz, while putting four musician sons on a path to prominent careers, died on Wednesday. He was 85.
The cause was complications of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, his son Branford said in a statement, which did not specify where he died.
Mr. Marsalis spent decades as a working musician and teacher in New Orleans before his eldest sons, Wynton and Branford, who embodied a fresh-faced revival of traditional jazz, gained national fame in the early 1980s.
Mr. Marsalis’s star rose along with theirs, and he, too, became a household name.
“Ellis Marsalis was a legend,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night. “He was the prototype of what we mean when we talk about New Orleans jazz.”
That was not always so. Mr. Marsalis’s devotion to midcentury bebop and its offshoots had long made him something of an outsider in a city with an abiding loyalty to its early-jazz roots. Still, he secured the respect of fellow musicians thanks to his unshakable talents as a pianist and composer, and his supportive but rigorous manner as an educator.
Once they reached the national stage, the Marsalises’ advocacy of straight-ahead jazz made them renegades of a different sort. Wynton, a trumpeter, boldly espoused his father’s devotion to heroes like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and he issued public broadsides against the slicker jazz-rock fusion that had largely displaced acoustic jazz during the late 1960s and ’70s.
Photogenic, erudite and fabulously talented, Mr. Marsalis’s children and many other young jazz musicians he had taught — including Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison Jr., Harry Connick Jr. and Nicholas Payton — became the leaders in a burgeoning traditionalist movement, loosely referred to as the Young Lions.
“My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father,” Branford Marsalis said in a statement. “He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be.”
By that point, the Marsalises were widely understood to be jazz’s royal family. Wynton had become the founding artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the world’s pre-eminent nonprofit organization devoted to jazz, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997. Branford was a world-renowned saxophonist and bandleader with three Grammys to his name. Delfeayo, a trombonist, and Jason, a drummer and vibraphonist, were also well established as bandleaders.