Ellis Marsalis Biography

14 November 1934, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Although he has never really been a revolutionary band leader or pianist, Ellis Marsalis’ influence on the American mainstream jazz scene cannot be overestimated. As an inspirational figure to a new generation of artists, and an educator and spokesman, this New Orleans-born pianist is unrivalled. Marsalis’ professional music career began on tenor saxophone while still in high school, but he changed to piano a few years later, performing with such New Orleans-based modern jazz luminaries as clarinettist Alvin Batiste and drummer Ed Blackwell. He spent a brief spell on the west coast (he accompanied Blackwell out there, who was going out to meet up with Ornette Coleman), before signing up for military service with the marines in the mid-50s. His musical career was hardly interrupted by the services, and he soon found himself accompanying singers on CBS television, on the marine-sponsored Dress Blues show.

Back in New Orleans during the early 60s, Marsalis’ reputation as a sensitive and versatile accompanist led to a job fronting the house trio at the Playboy Club, where he accompanied star vocalists such as Ernestine Anderson and Jimmy Rushing. He joined trumpeter Al Hirt’s showboating trad band during the late 60s, and appeared with the group on many popular American television shows, before leaving to join Bob French’s Storyville Jazz Band in 1970, continuing the all-round jazz education and understanding that has made him such a unique figure on the current scene. He went on to lead his own highly successful modern jazz band with drummer James Black, enjoying a residency at one of New Orleans’ premier jazz clubs for a year and a half.

In the mid-70s, Marsalis began to turn his attention towards furthering his involvement in education. He had been teaching since the mid-50s, but now he began working in earnest on a jazz curriculum, and was taken on by the New Orleans Centre for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 1975. As a teacher, Marsalis’ students have included many of the new generation of New Orleans-based modern jazz stars, including saxophonist Victor Goines, bass player Reginald Veal, flautist Kent Jordan, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist/vocalist Harry Connick Jnr. and, of course, his stellar progeny Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Branford Marsalis (saxophones), Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone) and Jason Marsalis (drums), who have affected the US jazz scene permanently, with their emphasis on craftsmanship and learning.

Ellis Marsalis was head of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans until his retirement in August 2001 and a panellist, grant evaluator and board member for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Arts Federation.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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