Ellis Marsalis, a master jazz pianist, arts educator and patriarch of a celebrated New Orleans jazz family, died in a hospital in New Orleans on April 1.
In a statement, son Branford Marsalis said he had been hospitalized for complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. He was 85.
Harold McMillan is the director of Diversearts Culture Works and a community arts leader in Austin. For years, he programmed the Clarksville Jazz Festival in Pease Park. He posted this moving tribute to Marsalis on Facebook on April 2. He agreed to let us share it:
"Ellis touched my life, very personally, many years ago. I founded and produced an annual jazz festival here in Austin back then. It was a good project, but the first few seasons it was a totally "local" festival. I was young and ambitious and I had this vision of taking the fest to the next level with national and international "jazz stars." Austin wasn't really a big jazz town, but I thought national headliners would make us legit. But I didn't have the connections to do that at the time.
I did my research, got advice from (jazz trumpeter) Martin Banks and started going to the New Orleans JazzFest. I finally talked my way into getting backstage access at the jazz tent. Nobody knew me, but I wanted to get to someone who would give me a few minutes and listen to my story.
Ellis Marsalis. After a few words of explanation, Ellis actually invited me to sit with him in his greenroom trailer. He didn't know me from Adam, but he understood what i was up to. He listened. I was producing a small fest in a town not known for jazz, in a town where black folks were totally absent from the business-end of jazz and stages only had a precious few black folks actually getting paid to play jazz. I told him I was trying to change that with my little fest. And I told him Martin Banks recommended I find him. I asked him to help me. He understood. He said yes.
After that initial conversation with Mr. Marsalis, I went on to produce him in Austin two times. I booked directly with him, not his booking agent (he knew I didn't have any real money, but that was OK. He knew what my mission was.)
My relationship with Ellis subsequently made it possible for me to later book Jason Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, Irvin Mayfield, Kermit Ruffin, Charles Neville, and other jazz cats from New Orleans.
Yes, Ellis was the patriarch of New Orleans Jazz. He was also a kind and generous man who took the time to help a kid get started on a career of producing big-name touring jazz shows. I hadn't really thought about it this way, but that meeting backstage with him at JazzFest changed my life. And I am ever grateful for having known Ellis Marsalis.