Dolores Marsalis, the wife of noted New Orleans jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis Jr. and matriarch of the family that includes four internationally-known musicians, died Tuesday. She was 80.
Ellis Marsalis Jr. said his wife had been suffering with dementia for some time and was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
The couple’s six sons include four award-winning musicians: Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. Two other sons did not pursue careers in music: Ellis III and Mboya.
Although Mrs. Marsalis herself did not pursue music professionally, Ellis Marsalis Jr. said music ran in his wife's family. “On her father’s side, she was related to Wellman Braud, who was Duke Ellington’s bass player, and on her mother’s side she was related to the clarinetist Alphonse Picou, so music really was in the family, even if it wasn’t something she herself pursued,” Mr. Marsalis said Thursday. “She had a beautiful singing voice and was very musical, though she didn’t practice it as a profession,” he said.
It was music that first helped introduce Ellis Marsalis Jr. to his future wife. The two met at Lincoln Beach in 1956, where both were attending a Dinah Washington concert. They began dating and married in 1959. Their eldest son, Branford, was born the next year.
“My mother was the disciplinarian in the house,” Branford Marsalis told writer Geraldine Wyckoff for an OffBeat Magazine profile in 2014. “With dad in charge, we could have gotten away with almost anything, save burning the house down. Mama didn’t play that…at all.” In the same article, which announced Ellis Marsalis as the recipient of an OffBeat Lifetime Achievement Award, several of her sons gave their mother credit for their creative spirit. “Everything she did would be original,” Wynton Marsalis said. “Her way of talking was original, the food that she would cook was original and the way she would joke around or mess with you would be original.”
Mrs. Marsalis spoke of her son Wynton’s burgeoning career in a 1984 Times-Picayune interview. “In Wynton’s music I hear a lot of things. I hear a little boy growing up with a play trumpet. I hear all the school bands, all the street parades. I hear New Orleans and all the music in New Orleans and his experiences and how he ran to these experiences,” she said. “I hear 22 years of my experiences with my son when he plays. I hear the fights I’ve had with him through the years. I hear the good times, the bad times. It’s the sum total of your life’s experiences that you hear in a jazz musician’s work.”
Mrs. Marsalis’ husband and sons stressed how she worked to keep the family together while the patriarch pursued his groundbreaking musical career.
“Mother was the one who basically kept everything in line,” Jason Marsalis said in 2014. ”Her personality is definitely one of those strong women that does not play at all when it comes to her kids. And you needed that, especially with the older ones. She really needed it then. Dad honestly would sometimes think more about music than other family issues, like money.”
A New Orleans native, Mrs. Marsalis attended St. Mary's Academy High School and Grambling State University, where she studied home economics.
Ellis Marsalis Jr. said Thursday that while his wife was supportive of his career and her son’s budding musical talents during their youth, she was no stage mother. “She encouraged them in every way she could, but would have been happy no matter what they did in life, as long as it was on the right side of the law,” he laughed.
In addition to her husband and sons, Mrs. Marsalis is also survived by 15 grandchildren. Rhodes Funeral Home is handling funeral arrangements, which have not been finalized.