IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ellis Marsalis, jazz patriarch, dies at 85 after coronavirus diagnosis

Ellis Marsalis, a gifted pianist, was the father of four jazz stalwarts, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
Image: obit, Ellis Marsalis
Ellis Marsalis performs at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans on April 28, 2019.Sophia Germer / AP file

Jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, educator and father of four noted musicians, died in New Orleans after contracting coronavirus, his son said. He was 85.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell called the musician an icon in announcing his death. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music confirmed his death to NBC News affiliate WDSU.

The musician had the disease caused by the virus, COVID-19, and pneumonia, one of his sons told the Associated Press.

“Pneumonia was the actual thing that caused his demise," Ellis Marsalis III said. "But it was pneumonia brought on by COVID-19."

WDSU described Ellis Marsalis as the patriarch of jazz music's "First Family."

Marsalis' musical sons include trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason.

Wynton has won nine Grammy Awards. Branford led the Tonight Show Band on the NBC show when Jay Leno hosted. He also toured with Sting.

Ellis Marsalis was a pianist and educator who performed on television in Los Angeles weekly after serving in the Marine Corps in the 1950s. He returned to New Orleans to spread the gospel of jazz at the Southern Repertory Theater, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and a local venue, Snug Harbor.

In 2006, following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina the previous year, Ellis Marsalis joined son Branford, volunteers from Habitat for Humanity and New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr. to build 72 homes for displaced musicians in the city's Upper Ninth Ward.

The community became known as Musicians' Village and, in 2011, it was added what would become its centerpiece, the nonprofit, 17,000-square-foot Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which includes performance space, recording facilities, a listening library and classrooms.

"Sometimes, as a gentleman once said, violence is very often the midwife of change," Marsalis told NBC News as planning and construction on the village began.

"Katrina was very violent because what you are seeing now are things that some of us talked about for years in a kind of abstract manner — a place where musicians could hang out, if you will, where musicians can go and learn," he said.

In January, he retired from performing.