A trio of events this week during this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will honor the late Black jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., one of the city’s most prominent music names and the patriarch of perhaps its most notable music family.
Back-to-back screenings of the documentary film “Ellis” will take place on Wednesday and Thursday night—at the New Orleans Jazz Museum and the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, respectively, the latter being the site of Marsalis’ longtime residency during the prime of his career.
The 90-minute flick traces the history of the vaunted performer, composer, and educator, and includes interviews with his five musician sons and others who were inspired by his life and impact.
Though the film was released in 2022 and premiered in New York City last fall, this week’s showings during Jazz Fest will constitute the first in Marsalis’ hometown and the first for a wider American audience. The annual festival draws roughly 400,000 to the Crescent City each year for two weekends of concerts and other events.
“I feel honored and thrilled to premiere Ellis in New Orleans,” director Sascha Just said Tuesday on social media, while crediting the director of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
“Many thanks to Greg Lambousy, who has been a tireless supporter of this film, for making this special event happen.”
Wednesday’s outdoor screening will be preceded by a concert led by Marsalis’ youngest son, Jason, a percussionist who will lead a band of former Ellis collaborators in a show beginning at 6:30pm. A brief Q&A will take place before the screening, which is scheduled for 8pm.
The event at Snug Harbor, one of several jazz clubs on historic Frenchman Street in downtown New Orleans, is part of the bistro’s regular “E-Day Festivals,” honoring Marsalis for his contributions to the jazz idiom. Marsalis held a near-weekly residency at the club for more than three decades—constituting most of the establishment's 40-year history. His son trombonist son Delfeayo now regularly holds court at Snug Harbor with his Uptown Jazz Orchestra.
“Metaphorically speaking, Snug's is ‘the stage that Ellis built.’ The magic of his spirit can still be felt present today, when we experience intimate sonic moments in our listening room, a room now often led by his sons, mentees, and fellow jazz pioneers,” reads an event description from the club.
“This special screening of the first feature documentary about his life and legacy will be a surreal one; as we immerse ourselves in the film, inside the very room, facing the very stage, where Ellis made so much of his magic... a room featured in the film itself.”
Snug Harbor’s “Ellis” screening will be followed by two musical sets, in which Jason will present a tribute to his late father with his E-Quintet. The shows will take place at 9 and 11pm, respectively. An opening reception will take place at 5pm.
Over the course of his career, Marsalis released nearly twenty albums and recorded several more with his sons, both individually and as The Marsalis Family. His albums’ various tunes include original compositions, New Orleans classics, Christmas hymns, and a collaborative gospel album in 2016 as a member of the New Orleans jazz supergroup, The American Jazz Quintet.
Marsalis died in 2020 from complications related to COVID-19, having been inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame two years earlier, among various honors received throughout his life. He was honored as an NEA Jazz Master with his sons in 2011, and as a Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalist Association in 2018. Most recently, he received the Grammy Trustees Award posthumously earlier this year.
Marsalis was also a practicing Catholic and for a time taught at the nation’s Catholic HBCU, Xavier University of Louisiana, where he had previously studied clarinet as a boy. His six sons, including Jason and Delfeayo, were raised in the faith by Ellis and his wife Dolores, who died in 2017.
Wednesday afternoon’s screening and concert at the New Orleans Jazz Museum are free, and donations will be accepted; chairs will not be provided. Tickets for Thursday’s screening are available on the Snug Harbor website at $10 in advance and $15 at the door; concert tickets are 40$.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.