Jazz Great Ellis Marsalis Dead at 85, Fought Virus

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Ellis Marsalis Jr., the jazz musician, teacher and head of a musical family has died after being infected with coronavirus.

He was 85.

Ellis Marsalis III, one of his sons, told The Associated Press that his father’s death was caused by the coronavirus. He died after a battle with lung infections “brought on by COVID-19,” his son said.

Four of the jazz musician’s six sons are also musicians: Wynton, one of America’s best-known jazz musicians, is the artistic director of jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center; Branford led The Tonight Show band and toured with Sting; Delfeayo is a recording producer and performer; and Jason has his own musical group.

Jazz Great Ellis Marsalis Dead at 85, Fought Virus
Jazz Great Ellis Marsalis Dead at 85, Fought Virus

Marsalis made his career in New Orleans. He later joined his sons on tour as they played around the world.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said of the man: “Ellis Marsalis was a legend… He was a teacher, a father, and an icon.”

Harry Connick Jr. was one of Marsalis’ students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Other well-known musicians from his classrooms include Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Victor Goines, and Reginald Veal.

Marsalis was born in New Orleans. His father ran a hotel in an area of the city where African-American musicians stayed when they toured. At the time, African-Americans could not stay in downtown New Orleans hotels.

He played saxophone in high school. He also played piano by the time he went to Dillard University.

New Orleans was a traditional jazz town. Rock ‘n’ roll was the new sound in the 1950s. But Marsalis preferred bebop and modern jazz. His music has been described as romantic, modern, or simply “Louisiana jazz.”

Marsalis joined the Marine Corps and played piano on a weekly military program for CBS television in New York. From the show, he said, he learned all kinds of music. Back in New Orleans, he worked at the Playboy Club and appeared again on TV as part of a jazz group.

In the mid-1970s, he taught at a special New Orleans high school for musicians. He also taught at Xavier University and the University of New Orleans.

On Wednesday night, Ellis III recalled how his father taught him the meaning of integrity before he even knew the word.

As young boys, Ellis and his brother Delfeayo went to hear their father play at a club. There was only one man who was sleeping and drunk in the club. The boys asked to leave.

Ellis said, “He looked at us and said, ‘I can’t leave… I’m paid to play this set. I’m going to play this set. It doesn’t matter that nobody’s here.’”

I’m Jonathan Evans.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

jazz – n. a type of American music with lively rhythms and melodies that are often created by musicians while they play

legend – n. a man of great stature

icon  n. someone who noted for his greatness in a particular skill

saxophone – n. a musical instrument that has a curved metal tube and is played by blowing into the mouthpiece and pressing keys with your fingers

bebop – n. a fast complex type of jazz

integrity – n. the quality of being fair and honest

club – n. a place where people go to listen to live music and drink alcohol

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