National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of NEA Jazz Master Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

A man in a tuxedo speaks at a podium
NEA Jazz Master Ellis Marsalis, Jr. at the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony & Concert at Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Photo by Frank Stewart

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of jazz musician and educator Ellis Marsalis, Jr., who in 2011 was honored as an NEA Jazz Master, along with his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason. The Marsalis Family was the first and only group awarded the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.

Ellis Marsalis, Jr. was born in New Orleans in 1934. After earning a BA in music education from Dillard University in 1955, Marsalis played modern jazz with his local colleagues until enlisting in the Marine Corps the following year. He soon became a member of the Corps Four, a Marines jazz quartet that performed on television and radio to boost recruiting efforts. After the Marines and a brief teaching stint in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, he returned to New Orleans with his wife and family to work in his father's motel business while freelancing at gigs around town, such as recording with the Adderley Brothers.

In the 1970s, he studied music education at Loyola University, eventually earning a master's degree. In 1974, he became the director of jazz studies at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school, mentoring such contemporary artists as Reginald Veal, Terence Blanchard, and Harry Connick, Jr. After three years teaching at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, he joined the University of New Orleans, where he spent 12 years heading the jazz studies department. In 1999, Jazz Man’s Journey: A Biography of Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr., authored by former National Endowment for the Arts director of music and fellow New Orleans native, D. Antoinette Handy, was published. To celebrate his retirement in 2001, the entire Marsalis family performed, captured on the release The Marsalis Family: A Jazz Celebration. In 2008, Marsalis was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

In an interview with the Arts Endowment, Marsalis talked about his approach to teaching: “If you really want to be excellent at whatever it is that you doin', especially in music, you try to teach that to somebody. And you will find out real quickly how much you know, how much you don't know, what you need to go and find out. By attempting to TEACH somebody.”

For more information about Ellis and the Marsalis Family, including a tribute video in their honor, visit

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About the National Endowment for the Arts

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Visit to learn more.


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