Ellis Marsalis is regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans. The story starts in New Orleans, with the birth of Ellis L. Marsalis, Jr. in 1934. Although the city was noted for Dixieland and rhythm-and-blues, Ellis was more interested in the bebop sounds coming from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His first recording was modern jazz music performed with fellow New Orleans musicians Ed Blackwell (who eventually became the drummer for Ornette Coleman), clarinetist Alvin Batiste, bassist Richard Payne, and saxophonist Harold Battiste as the American Jazz Quintet.
After earning a BA in music education from Dillard University in 1955, Marsalis continued to play 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 Dolores and then four children to work in his father's motel business while freelancing at gigs around town, such as recording with the Adderley Brothers. From 1967-70, Marsalis performed with trumpeter Al Hirt.
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. (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason attended the center as well). After three years teaching at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Marsalis joined the University of New Orleans, where he spent 12 years heading the jazz studies department. 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 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.
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.