With the Grammy Awards in February each year, which is also African American History Month, it is particularly fitting to recognize one of the Marine Corps’ very own – renowned jazz musician Ellis Marsalis – for his lifelong dedication to jazz and education, and for inspiring his jazz musician sons, whose extraordinary talents have brought home more than ten Grammy Awards.
Ellis Marsalis’s dedication to his music and family has produced a tremendous legacy in the world of jazz. He is regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans, and is recognized for his impressive track record as a jazz performer, educator, and father.
Four of his six sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason, have distinguished themselves with highly successful jazz and classical-jazz careers and two of them have brought home Grammys. Branford Marsalis, a saxophonist, is the winner of two Grammy Awards, and Wynton Marsalis, a trumpeter and composer, has received nine Grammy Awards and is the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his epic three and a half hour oratorio “Blood on the Fields”.
In addition to his professional career as a jazz musician, Ellis Marsalis is a talented and devoted educator who inspires his music students in acquiring understanding of the art of jazz, and preserving jazz as a uniquely American tradition. As National Public Radio notes:
"Ellis Marsalis has become one of the most renowned music educators in the U.S., imparting his extensive knowledge of jazz to students like pianist and vocalist Harry Connick, Jr., trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and of course, his four sons."
In 2011, Marsalis and his family received the highest honor our nation bestows on jazz artists, the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, usually awarded to a single living legend who has made exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz, but for the first time awarded to a group. Ellis accepted this prestigious industry award with “great pride and humility” on behalf of the family.
"I hope my sons and I continue to exemplify the quality of excellence in the work that is expected from the recipient of such an honor,” said Ellis, once again noting the sense of family legacy that continues to be the theme of his hard work.
“The dedication my father has to the music is something that always stays with me. He plays his heart out whether it's a gig for thousands or just six people in a club,” Wynton tells NYC DADS, the Mayor of New York City’s Fatherhood initiative.
“My father taught us to have integrity in whatever it was that we were doing - to be true to yourself and what you believe in.”
Wynton, for his part, is similarly seeking to support the development of the next generation of jazz greats, following the path forged by his father as teacher and music educator. He is currently the Artistic Director and co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a leading music venue and education center in the heart of New York City’s Lincoln Center arts community.
Ellis Marsalis was born on November 14, 1934, and his formal music studies began at age eleven at the Xavier University junior school of music. After high school, he enrolled in Dillard University, in New Orleans, as a clarinet major. He graduated in 1955 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education, and then joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
While stationed as a Marine in southern California, Ellis Marsalis honed his pianist skills as a member of the Corps Four, a Marines jazz quartet that performed on television in "Dress Blues," named for the formal Marine Corps uniform and broadcast on CBS, and the radio shows "Leatherneck Songbook". Both of the Corps Four TV and radio shows were used to boost Marine Corps recruiting efforts.
After completing his Marine Corps duty, Marsalis returned to New Orleans, the town where he was born, and the place known for its iconic music: Jazz. He married Dolores Ferdinand, a New Orleans native, raised his six sons there, and the jazz capital of the U.S. continues as his hometown to this day. In December 2008, Ellis Marsalis was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
To date, Ellis Marsalis has been the recipient of five Honorary Doctorate degrees: from his alma mater Dillard University of New Orleans (1989); Ball State University (1997); Virginia Commonwealth University (2010); Tulane University (2007), and The Juilliard School (2003).
(Source: U.S. Marine Corps photo)