Born: November 14, 1934 Primary Instrument: Piano
Ellis Marsalis is regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans. Born on November 14, 1934, he began formal music studies at the Xavier University junior school of music at age eleven. After high school Marsalis enrolled in Dillard University (New Orleans) as a clarinet major. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music education in 1955. Marsalis spent the next year working as an assistant manager in his fathers’ motel business.
The following year Marsalis then joined the U.S. Marine Corps and while stationed in southern California began honing his skills as a pianist on a television show entitled Dress Blues and a radio show called Leatherneck Songbook. Both shows were sponsored by the Marine Corps. After completing a stint in the Marine Corps Marsalis returned to New Orleans and married Dolores Ferdinand, a New Orleanian, who bore him six sons; Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya and Jason.
In 1964 Marsalis moved his wife and family of, at at time, four sons to the small rural Louisiana town of Breux Bridge where he became a school band and choral director at Carver high school for two years. Returning to New Orleans he began to freelance once again on the local music scene. He set his sights on bebop and formed a small combo with drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophonist Battiste.
With its modern, almost avant-garde style, the group found little work in New Orleans, but it did get the attention of legendary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Originally from Texas and steeped in that state's R&B style, Coleman found himself at odds with most of New Orleans' jazz scene. He quickly left The Big Easy for California. Once he arrived, he asked Ellis and the rest of the group to follow.
After the group arrived in California, they quickly realized that it was not exactly the Promised Land they had hope to find. Even though their time out West was short-lived, they did manage to make their first recording in 1956 as The American Jazz Quintet. Ellis soon returned to New Orleans and continued playing modern bebop, despite the limited support from the city.
Things brightened up in 1963, when famed cornetist Nat Adderley and his brother, alto saxophonist and bandleader Cannonball came to New Orleans. The brothers recorded with Ellis and several other New Orleans musicians on Nat's album “In the Bag.” The album dubbed Ellis, drummer James Black, and tenor saxophonist Nat Perrilliat as the Down Home New Stars.
Between 1966 and 1974 Marsalis would perform at the Playboy Club (New Orleans), in the Al Hirt night club, Lu and Charles night club and enter the teaching profession again as an adjunct professor at Xavier University (New Orleans).
While the family continued to grow Marsalis, decided to return to school in the early summer session of 1974 working towards a Masters Degree at Loyola University (New Orleans). Marsalis would also interview for a teaching position at a new Magnet school for the arts. his interview was successful and he was hired in the Fall semester at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts(1974) high school. He would spend the next twelve years at NOCCA as an instrumental music teacher with a Jazz studies emphasis. Many leading jazz artists today -- alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Harry Connick, Jr. -- studied at the CCA with Ellis. It should come to no surprise that his sons Wynton Jason, Delfeayo, and Branford also attended the Center.
In 1986 Marsalis accepted the position of Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. He would spend two of the three years as coordinator of Jazz Studies before returning to New Orleans and the University of New Orleans to become the first occupant of the CocaCola endowed chair of Jazz Studies as the director.
Marsalis has been the recipient of Honorary Doctorate degrees from his alma mater Dillard University, (1989) and Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana (1997).
On August 10, 2001 Marsalis officially retired from the University of New Orleans after twelve years as the first occupant of the CocaCola Jazz Chair and the Director of the Jazz Studies Division.
Marsalis has acquired an impressive resume of recordings both as a leader and in accompaniment of his famous sons. For his latest project, Marsalis has started his own label ELM Records.
In January 2011, Ellis Marsalis will become the first jazz artist in history to release an interactive album in the new iTunes LP format. Ellis Marsalis: An Open Letter to Thelonious (on Nu Jazz Records) features (11) songs, (3) bonus audio tracks, (4) bonus high-definition videos, (10) photos, bonus liner notes and audio liner notes, and bonus literaru content.
On January 11, 2011 he scheduled to be inducted as a NEA National Endowmet of the Arts) Jazz Master at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theatre in New York City.
He continues to perform locally in his city of New Orleans.
Awards:2011 National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master
Marsalis keeps Monk's music very much alive with his inspired interpretations of the legend's compositions. - Ken Dryden, Rovi All Music Guide
Ellis Marsalis Jr. captures the Monk magic leading his quartet in performing unique renditions of his compositions. - Edward Blanco, E jazznews
Ellis Marsalis, at 73 a lucid, subtle, laconic pianist, shines up these tunes, leaving sufficient space while weaving phrases in and around the solos. - Ben Ratliff, New York Times
The fact is that very few jazz albums and even fewer Monk tributes climb the heights reached on this gem of a listening experience. - John Swenson, Off beat
The songs are familiar and respectfully rendered but Marsalis, 73, makes them sound daring again. - Karl Stark, San Diego Union Tribune