December 30, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Sascha Just
Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Ellis,” a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people), who are all connected in some way to jazz musician Ellis Marsalis Jr., discuss his life and career.
Culture Clash: Marsalis overcame obstacles in a racist music industry to become an influential jazz artist and producer.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Ellis Marsalis Jr. fans, “Ellis” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an easygoing but not particularly exciting documentary about a famous jazz musician.
Although “Ellis” often looks like a unchallenging tribute film to a music icon, it can maintain viewer interest because of the people interviewed in the documentary and for offering some enjoyable performance footage. This documentary about jazz legend Ellis Marsalis Jr. plays it very safe, but it’s an insightful look into his professional and personal life. He participated in this documentary, which was his last film project before he died at age 85 of COVID-19-related pneumonia in 2020. “Ellis” is also the first feature-length documentary specifically about him.
Directed by Sascha Just, “Ellis” lets the movie’s namesake do much of the talking in telling his life story. His memories and stories (which sometimes ramble and could have used tighter editing) shape the narrative of the documentary, which has the expected mix of interviews, archival footage and exclusive footage that is new to this film. “Ellis,” which is Just’s feature-film directorial debut, had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2022.
“Ellis” is told mostly in chronological order, with Ellis starting off by talking about his childhood and how he got into music. His parents (Ellis Marsalis Sr. and Florence Robertson) came from fairly different backgrounds. Robertson was a Creole from New Ellis, Louisiana. Ellis Sr. was a non-Creole from Summit, Mississippi. Ellis Jr. was born and raised in New Orleans, which has long been considered the American city most associated with jazz.
Ellis says of his early years as a musician: “I was learning the craft by way of bebop.” He took up playing the clarinet because he admired Artie Shaw. In high school, he listened to R&B, but jazz would eventually become his passion. However, because music education at the time was focused on European-based music (classic music or opera), Ellis remembers he couldn’t play jazz around the Catholic nuns who taught at the schools he attended. His mother bought him a tenor saxophone, but he also started playing the piano, which became his favorite instrument.
Instead of becoming a professional musician after graduating from high school, Ellis decided he would get a college education first at Dillard University. He graduated in 1955. His father paid for the tuition, even though Ellis says that his father (who owned a hotel on property that he owned) was skeptical that a college education would be beneficial to a black man in America at the time. Ellis Jr. saw things differently: “Being in the classroom was the closest thing between not having to pick up that mop and broom.
Ellis says of his father: “He didn’t want to work for anyone,” and Ellis Jr. inherited some of that entrepreneurial spirit by becoming an independent musician for hire. And his appreciation for education served him well when he became music teacher to help pay the bills when he wasn’t making enough money as a musician. He comments, “People who understood the economics of the situation could put a hustle together.”
Growing up in racially segregated Louisiana had an effect on him too, but Ellis doesn’t dwell on the negative experiences in this documentary. He says of spending a great deal of his life living with racist segregation: “It affected lots of stuff: the way you talked, the way you dressed, the way you studied in school.”
Ellis’ mentor at Dillard University was Harold Battiste, who would go on to found All for One (AFO) Records. As poet Kalamu ya Salaam says in the documentary about Battiste: “He had a vision that was just broader than playing music. He wanted to produce music. He wanted black people of his time and place to control and own their music.” Ellis Jr. was one of the artists who recorded music for AFO.
In the documentary, Ellis’ son Jason remember discovering an AFO Records box set at the age of 10 and hearing his father’s music and being surprised that it was so different from what he expected: “II couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was hearing the music that is not the kind of music that people think of when they think of the city of New Orleans, to this day.”
Ellis tells some entertaining stories about his travels as a young musician, when he would go on the road with Battiste and drummer Edward Blackwell. For a while, he lived in New York City, but eventually returned to New Orleans. Except a period of time (1986 to 1989), when Ellis and his family lived in Richmond, Virginia, he would live in New Orleans for the rest of his life.
Ellis met his future wife Dolores Ferdinand at a racially segregated beach in Louisiana called Lincoln Beach. He asked for her phone number, and one of his friends said to him: “Why do you want to do that? You’re not going to call her.” Ellis quips in the documentary: “He was wrong.”
The courtship of Ellis and Dolores was somewhat interrupted in 1957, when Ellis enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He comments on his military experience: “In the Marine Corps, they look for normal people they can teach how to kill people.” He also remembers that he didn’t write too many love letters to Dolores while he was in the Marines.
After getting out of the military, he and Dolores married and would go on to have six sons together: Wynton, Branford, Jason, Delfeayo, Ellis III and Mboya Kenyatta. All of them (except for Mboya Kenyatta, who has autism) are professional musicians who have performed as solo artists and as members of the Marsalis Family band. Wynton, Branford, Jason, Delfeayo and Ellis III are all interviewed in the documentary.
Ellis describes his marriage to Dolores (who died in 2017) as generally happy but sometimes strained due the financial pressures of raising a large family on a musician’s salary that wasn’t always steady a income. Ellis comments, “I never developed a defeatist attitude about it. I always figured somehow it would work out.”
Even though money was often tight for the Marsalis family, Ellis says that Dolores told him never to give up on being a musician, even when he contemplated quitting music to become a taxi driver. To supplement his income, Ellis continued teaching music. In the 1970s, he was a teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his students included Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr. and actor Wendell Pierce. (Ellis would later be the jazz program chairperson at the University of New Orleans, from 1989 to 2001.)
In the documentary, Pierce shares his memories of having Ellis as a teacher. Pierce says that his first impression of Ellis was that he was “a wise sage with a great sense of humor … He put you at ease, and gave you a sense that you were going to figure it out.” At the same time, “He was a touch teacher and a tough mentor.”
Ellis’s children say in the documentary that he was not the type of father who pushed or pressured his children into following in his footsteps. Branford remembers that his father didn’t force him to practice music. Delfeayo adds, “Yeah, he was very laid-back. Wynton comments, “he didn’t make me play in his band,” but “I loved and respected him so much.” ” Branford adds, “He wasn’t materialistic or ambitious. He just wanted to play.”
Ellis also talks about how he and Dolores were civil rights activists who were very outspoken about their rights, and they taught their children to be the same way. Wynton says, “She was very direct about any of the issues.”
The performance footage in “Ellis” includes him performing at Jazz Fest in 1994, a Marsalis Family performance at Jazz Fest in 2001, and a 2019 solo artist performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. His songs that are featured in the movie include “Nostalgic Impressions,” “Canadian Sunset,” Magnolia Triangle,” “Basic Urge,” “Tell Me,” “After and Monkey Puzzle.” As for his favorite recordings that he’s done, Ellis narrows it down to the Ellis Marsalis Trio music that he recorded on Blue Note Records and the 1996 “Loved Ones” album that he recorded with son Branford.
Other people interviewed the documentary are Ellis’ colleagues. They include pianist David Torkanowsky, trumpeter Ashlin Parker, saxophonist Derek Douget, pianist Tom McDermott, drummer Helen Riley, guitarist Steve Masakowski, former Musicians Village director Michele Brierre, and two of his former students: saxophonist John Ellis and pianist Jesse McBride. All of their comments are essentially praise-filled soundbites that don’t offer anything truly revealing.
“Ellis” is perfectly pleasant, but the movie might come across as a bit bland for people who have no interest in jazz music. The documentary could have used more meaningful stories about how Ellis Marsalis Jr. got inspired to write certain songs, or how he felt being the patriarch of a family of musicians. The movie’s production values are adequate. Mostly, “Ellis” tells his story in a simple but effective way, even if the movie doesn’t have anything new or surprising to reveal.