Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, mother of jazz greats, dies at 80
Updated on July 19, 2017 at 9:10 PM Posted on July 19, 2017 at 8:24 PM
Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, mother of jazz greats, has died. St. Peter Claver Jazz extravaganza St. Peter Claver's pastor's home 1923 St. Philip Street Saturday, February 1, 2003 (Matt Roppolo)
Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, matriarch of one of New Orleans' great musical families died Tuesday (July 18) of pancreatic cancer. She was 80 years old. Dolores Marsalis was the wife of the influential New Orleans jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, and mother of six sons: Branford, Wynton , Ellis III, Delfeayo , Mboya Kinyatta, and Jason, four of whom are jazz musicians.
In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Ellis Marsalis said that Dolores was born in New Orleans and attended St. Mary's Academy High School and Grambling State University, where she studied home economics. Ellis met Dolores at Lincoln Beach in 1956, he said. Both were there to attend a Dinah Washington concert with friends. Later, he asked her out. She lived in the St. Bernard housing development at the time, he said.
"She really liked music," Ellis said. "I didn't know many girls who liked jazz at that time."
It was no wonder, really.
In a 2014 story written by Henry Louis Gates, to accompany the PBS television series "Finding Your Roots," Ellis said that his sons' musicianship may have come from Dolores's side of the family tree.
"A lot of people think it came from my side, which it did not," he said. "There was nobody on my side of the family that I ever heard of that performed or even sang; didn't even sing in church. Now on Dolores's side there were several musicians, lots of them."
Her uncle, Wellman Braud, was a bassist in Duke Ellington's orchestra, Ellis said. She was also descended from renowned New Orleans clarinetist Alphonse Picou and sibling trombonists Homer and Wendell Eugene.
In 1959 Ellis and Dolores were married.
Dolores's second son Wynton Marsalis, whose mastery of both jazz and classical trumpet earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a position as director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, recalled that his mother reigned over a rambunctious household. In a 2014 article by Jeff Korbelik in the Lincoln Journal Star, Wynton said:
"Oh my, we drove her absolutely crazy, with all the running up and down, and the fights, and playing ball in the house, picking on our little brothers — all the stuff that people do."
Ellis Marsalis III said that his mother "ran the roost and she was New Orleans through and through." From time to time, he said, city life would cause her to consider moving out of New Orleans for good, Ellis III said. "But then it would be crawfish season and she'd have to stay."
Dolores's first born, Branford Marsalis, an international jazz star in his own right, said that his mother could be counted on for honestly whether he liked it or not.
In the "Finding Your Roots" story mentioned above, he said: "She doesn't play music but she has a great ear for music. She knows when we're playing good and she knows when we're playing bad."
Ellis said that in addition to her career as mother, homemaker, and grandmother to 15, Dolores adored gardening and arranging the flowers she grew.
Dolores's two brothers, Lawrence Ferdinand and Delfeayo Ferdinand have died, Ellis said.
He said that arrangements for a memorial at Rhodes Funeral Home have not been completed.