Known as one of the world’s foremost jazz pianists, teacher and performer Ellis Marsalis began studying music at eleven. He enrolled at Dillard University to study clarinet, and graduated in 1955 with a degree in Music Education–one of the many reasons Marsalis is an inspiring teacher.
As a member of the Marine Corps’ popular “Corps Four,” Marsalis sharpened his jazz piano skills and gained national exposure. Upon his return to New Orleans, he met and married Dolores Ferdinand, and the couple had six sons: Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya, and Jason, four of whom went on to become world-class musicians in their own right.
After gaining teaching experience in Breaux Bridge and Carver, La., Marsalis returned to New Orleans and began freelancing on the music circuit, performing at landmarks like Al Hirt’s Night Club, Crazy Shirley’s, and the Playboy Club. In 1974, he returned to teaching music, eventually accepting a position at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where a jazz performance venue now bears his name.
Marsalis stayed at NOCCA for twelve years, moving to Virginia for three years afterward to serve as the Commonwealth University of Virginia’s Coordinator of Jazz Studies. In 1989, he again came back to New Orleans, accepting the Coca-Cola endowed Chair of Jazz Studies position at the University of New Orleans. At UNO, Marsalis was instrumental (no pun intended) in the creation of the Sand Bar, an on-campus performance venue for music students to showcase their chops. When Marsalis retired after twelve years at UNO, his sons Branford, Wynton, Jason and Delfeayo celebrated him in a group performance at the UNO Lakefront Arena.
In 2011, Marsalis and his sons were awarded the National Endowment for the Arts’ first-ever group award: with their recognition as NEA Jazz Masters, Ellis and his sons have cemented the indelible Marsalis impact on New Orleans music.