In memoriam: VCU faculty remember former colleague Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of jazz’s royal family

Ellis Marsalis seated at a grand piano.
Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of jazz's royal family and a former Commonwealth Professor at VCU, died April 1 at age 85. (Courtesy photo)

In 1986, the two newest faculty members in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Music — Ellis Marsalis and Terry Austin, Ph.D. — attended the Virginia Music Educators Association conference.

“Ellis had been on the ‘Today’ show a week before the conference so many people recognized him and everyone, of course, recognized his name on his name tag,” said Austin, now interim chair of the VCU Department of Music. “As we walked through the halls, people would noticeably point to him and say something to each other. I found it amusing. Ellis, on the other hand, did not. Celebrity did not impress him, especially his own.” 

Marsalis died Wednesday at age 85 from complications, The New York Times reports, of COVID-19. The patriarch of jazz’s royal family, he served as Commonwealth Professor of Music at VCU from 1986 to 1989. He would spend two of those three years as coordinator of Jazz Studies before returning to his hometown of New Orleans to become the first Coca-Cola Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans.

His way of working one-on-one with students was very personal, challenging and caring.

“Ellis is part of the very rich history of our department,” Austin said. “When he came to VCU he joined a very strong jazz program and he provided a unique complement to our instruction. His way of working one-on-one with students was very personal, challenging and caring. The first year he was here, VCU asked him to play at literally every event. That raised our profile within the university.” 

Professor Antonio García, director of Jazz Studies at VCU, said he had the privilege of hearing Marsalis in countless live performances while growing up in New Orleans. García also was a classmate of Marsalis’ sons Wynton and Branford.

By chance, García and Ellis Marsalis attended Loyola University together in the 1970s: García as a new undergraduate student, and Marsalis as an accomplished performer and educator seeking his formal music education degree. In the 1990s, they served together on an International Association for Jazz Education committee to create a document that would become the book “Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study,” with a foreword by Marsalis’ son Wynton. 

“When I considered leaving Northwestern University in 2001 to accept the position of director of Jazz Studies at VCU, I first called Ellis for his perspective on the institution, the jazz program, my future colleagues and students, and Richmond,” García said. “His input certainly influenced my decision.”

García nominated Marsalis for The Midwest Clinic Medal of Honor, which he received in 2009, and an honorary doctorate from VCU, which he received in May 2010, gracing graduates at that ceremony with a brief performance. 

Marsalis was a quiet person, García said, who exuded great authority, not by yelling, but by calm incisiveness.

“He could speak to the heart of an artistic or personal matter with a directness that was at the same time striking in its revelation and reassuring in the positive potential,” García said. “And clearly he led by example.”

Marsalis was kind to everyone and loved teaching, said Linda Johnston, administrative director of VCU Music, who was a new staff member in the department when Marsalis was a visiting Commonwealth Professor of Music.

“He was one of the warmest, kindest, most gentle people I have ever met,” she said. “He was a true family man who adored his wife and children. His knowledge of music was amazing not only in how to perform, but in what it took to be a successful musician. He treated everyone the same and wanted everyone to succeed. … Mr. Marsalis was more than a fine jazz musician. He was a wonderful human being with no ego.” 

He could speak to the heart of an artistic or personal matter with a directness that was at the same time striking in its revelation and reassuring in the positive potential.

Austin recalls an incident at that long-ago music conference that exemplifies this.

“A college student came up to him and said, ‘Mr. Marsalis, I want to jam with you man.’ Ellis' immediate response was, ‘Man, we're at a music conference. There's got to be a piano around here somewhere.’ So off we went, looking for an empty room with a piano,” Austin said. 

They finally found a space and Marsalis asked the young man what he wanted to play. The student at this point realized he was clearly out of his league, Austin said.

“He never expected to get this kind of response. He said, ‘Let's play some blues.’ Ellis then starts playing the most convoluted, complicated blues progress that I have ever heard while continuing his conversation with me,” Austin said. “I was looking at the student over his shoulder and the look of utter fear and confusion on his face made me feel a bit sorry for him. 

“After playing his progression for a while, Ellis turned to him and said, ‘Anytime man.’ So the kid starts playing anything he could think of. After a few minutes Ellis stopped playing and said, ‘That was fun,’ and we walked out. That young man got a memory that will last a lifetime. That was the generosity of Ellis.”

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