Jazz pianist and educator Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr. (1934–2020) was one of five talented musicians in the New Orleans, Louisiana Marsalis family—the others are his sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason. Born in New Orleans, Ellis, as a young eleven-year-old, began his music studies at Xavier University's Junior School of Music, studying the clarinet, then the tenor saxophone, and ultimately the piano.
After earning a bachelor's degree in music education from Dillard University (1955), Ellis focused on his fledgling music career, which included playing with the American Jazz Quintet in New Orleans and with Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles, California. During a two-year stint with the U.S. Marine Corps (1957–1959), serving in southern California, he played for two weekly shows: CBS television's "Dress Blues" and a radio show, "Leather Songbook." He later played with the Adderly brothers Nat and Cannonball (1962), at the New Orleans Playboy Club (1966), and with Al Hirt (1967–1970). He recorded fifteen albums as well as several collaborations with his sons. After playing a weekly gig at a small New Orleans club, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, for nearly three decades, he retired in early 2020.
As an educator, Ellis first taught at Carver High School in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, serving as band and choral director (1964–1966). He later joined the staff of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts High School (1974–1986), where he influenced the music and careers of musicians such as Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Harry Connick, Jr. (piano), Donald Harrison (saxophone), and his four musician sons—Wynton (trumpet), Branford (saxophone), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums). After earning a master of music degree from Loyola University New Orleans (1986), he moved to Richmond, Virginia, where he was coordinator of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (1986–1989). He received an honorary doctorate degree from Dillard University (1989) and served as director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans (1989–2001) until his retirement.
He later received honorary degrees from Tulane University (2007), The Julliard School (2010), Ball State University (2010), and Virginia Commonwealth University (2010). He served in various capacities for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Arts Federation. In 2008, he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
Ellis Marsalis, Jr., died on April 1, 2020, of complications from COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic.