Dolores Marsalis was a remarkable woman—beautiful, intelligent, determined and funny. She and her husband, pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis Jr., raised six boys—Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya and Jason—on the salary of a jazz musician and teacher while on the home front she encouraged her sons to explore the arts and made sure they took their studies seriously. Dolores Ferdinand Marsalis, the matriarch of the musical Marsalis family, died on July 18, 2017 at the age of 80.
“Her personality is definitely that of one of those strong women who does not play at all when it comes to her kids,” their sixth-born son, drummer and vibraphonist Jason said in a 2014 interview. “My mother was the disciplinarian in the house,” echoed the eldest son, saxophonist Branford. “She has a good ear for music, even with no training so when we sounded like crap, my mom would let us have it.”
It was Dolores, not her pianist husband, who came from a musical family. She was related on her father’s side to Wellman Braud, who was a bassist with Duke Ellington’s band, and on her mother’s side to noted New Orleans clarinetist Alphonse Picou. Her kin also included trombonist brothers Wendell and Homer Eugene.
Music is ultimately what brought the two together in 1956 when both attended vocalist Dinah Washington’s concert at Lincoln Beach. Ellis has been quoted as saying that at the time he didn’t know many girls who liked jazz. They were married in 1959.
One aspect of Dolores’ personality that kept popping up among family, friends and a slew of musicians at the viewing at Rhodes Funeral Home was her discerning sense of humor. “She could definitely be funny—just straight-up,” her husband says. “She would speak her mind,” their third son, poet/photographer Ellis III agrees. “You know the term brutal honesty? You had to be ready for it.”
“Everything she did would be original,” her son, noted trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said. “Her way of talking was original, the food that she cooked was original and the way she would joke around or mess with you would be original.”
The jazz funeral procession, following a mass at Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church, boasted an all-star band that included her musical sons and many musicians who knew and admired Dolores. It stopped by her and her husband’s modest Uptown home that they bought in 1975 and lived in ever since.
“Neither one of us were ‘things’ people,” Ellis says. “When I say things people, I mean we didn’t have a big car, we didn’t have big liquor bills, we didn’t have any of that so consequently we were able to function with a degree of consistency.”
“She was New Orleans through and through,” Ellis III exclaims. “Uncle Pomp, her uncle, our great uncle, used to use the term old Creole girl.”