Ellis Marsalis is regarded by many as the premier modern jazz pianist in New Orleans. Born on November 14, 1934, he began formal music studies at the Xavier University junior school of music at age eleven. After high school Marsalis enrolled in Dillard University (New Orleans) as a clarinet major. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music education in 1955. Marsalis spent the next year working as an assistant manager in his fathers’ motel business.
The following year Marsalis then joined the U.S. Marine Corps and while stationed in southern California began honing his skills as a pianist on a television show entitled Dress Blues and a radio show called Leatherneck Songbook. Both shows were sponsored by the Marine Corps. After completing a stint in the Marine Corps Marsalis returned to New Orleans and married Dolores Ferdinand, a New Orleanian, who bore him six sons; Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Miboya and Jason.
In 1964 Marsalis moved his wife and family of, at at time, four sons to the small rural Louisiana town of Breux Bridge where he became a school band and choral director at Carver high school for two years. Returning to New Orleans he began to freelance once again on the local music scene. He set his sights on bebop and formed a small combo with drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and saxophonist Battiste.
With its modern, almost avant-garde style, the group found little work in New Orleans, but it did get the attention of legendary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Originally from Texas and steeped in that state's R&B style, Coleman found himself at odds with most of New Orleans' jazz scene. He quickly left The Big Easy for California. Once he arrived, he asked Ellis and the rest of the group to follow.
After the group arrived in California, they quickly realized that it was not exactly the Promised Land they had hoped to find. Even though their time out West was short-lived, they did manage to make their first recording in 1956 as The American Jazz Quintet. Ellis soon returned to New Orleans and continued playing modern bebop, despite the limited support from the city.