Widely regarded as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans, Marsalis is the recipient of Honorary Doctorate degrees from his alma mater Dillard University, New Orleans, LA (1989); Ball State University, Muncie, IN (1997); Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA (2010); Tulane University, New Orleans, LA; and The Juilliard School, New York, NY.
In 2011, Marsalis and his family were awarded the highest honor in Jazz, NEA Jazz Masters, the first group award ever distributed by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Born on November 14, 1934, his formal music studies began at age eleven at the Xavier University junior school of music. After high school, Marsalis enrolled in Dillard University (New Orleans, LA) as a clarinet major.
He graduated in 1955 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Education. Marsalis spent the next year working as an assistant manager in his fathers motel business.
The following year, Marsalis joined the U.S. Marine Corps. While stationed in southern California he honed his pianist skills as a member of the Corps Four, a Marines jazz quartet that performed on television (“Dress Blues,” named for the formal Marine Corps uniform and broadcast on CBS) and radio shows (“Leatherneck Songbook”). Both shows were used to boost recruiting efforts. After completing his Marine Corps duty, Marsalis returned to New Orleans and married Dolores Ferdinand, a New Orleanian, who bore him six sons; Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya and Jason.
In 1964 Marsalis, his wife Dolores and, at the time, four sons, moved to the small rural town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where he spent two years as a school band and choral director at Carver high school
Returning to New Orleans in 1966, he began freelancing on the local music scene.
Between 1966 and 1974 Marsalis would perform at the Playboy Club (New Orleans), Al Hirt nightclub, Lu and Charlie’s nightclub, Storyville nightclub Crazy Shirley’s as well as again enter the teaching profession, in 1967, as an adjunct professor of African American Music at Xavier University (New Orleans, LA).
As the family continued to grow, Marsalis continued his educational pursuits, attending Loyola University’s (New Orleans, LA) Masters Degree program in the early summer session of 1974. He would also successfully interview for a teaching position at a new Magnet high school for the arts, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), and be hired as an instructor for the Fall semester (1974).
Marsalis would spend the next twelve years at NOCCA as an instrumental music teacher with a Jazz studies emphasis.
In 1986, Marsalis accepted a teaching position out of state. He became a Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, Virginia), serving as coordinator of Jazz Studies two of his three years there. In 1989, he returned to New Orleans to become the first occupant and Director of the Coca Cola endowed Chair of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans.
During his tenure at UNO he helped fellow colleague Charles Blancq develop a campus performance center called the Sand Bar. Marsalis would also develop a Jazz Orchestra, which he took, on the eve of his retirement, on a tour of Brazil. On August 10, 2001, Marsalis officially retired from the University of New Orleans after twelve years of dedicated service. His retirement was celebrated by a very rare performance of Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis at the UNO arena.
Marsalis has appeared on NBC’s Today show with host Bryant Gumbel; the Tonite show with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno; the Arsenio Hall show with pianist Marcus Roberts; the Charlie Rose show; Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood; ABC’s Good Morning America with Spencer Christian, as well as several local and regional television shows. In 1984 Marsalis and New Orleans singer/actress Joanne “Lady BJ” Creighton shared honors at the Ace Awards ceremony for the best single music program on cable television.
Marsalis continues to be active as a performing pianist leading, and occasionally touring, his own quartet. He has several recordings on the CBS-SONY label and currently releases recordings on his own recording label, ELM RECORDS, developed with his wife Dolores and son Jason.