It is with great pride and humility that I accept this award on behalf of the Marsalis family. The NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award has special meaning to me as I was a member of the jazz panel at the inception of this award and had the opportunity to cast subsequent votes for many of the surviving jazz giants during my tenure. At that time I had no idea that we would be so honored by the NEA and placed in the company of such an esteemed group of individuals.
I hope my sons and I continue to exemplify the quality of excellence in the work that is expected from the recipient of such an honor. I wish to thank all of those panel members who consider our family worthy of this award and assure them we will not disappoint them in the future. - Ellis Marsalis for the Marsalis Family
It is not a surprise that the first group award of the NEA Jazz Masters has gone to the formidable Marsalis family—never before in jazz (or most any other art form) has a family produced so many masters of the form. The Adderleys, the Jones, even today's Clayton Brothers, all produced a few family members that excelled on their instruments—but five?
The story starts in New Orleans, with the birth of Ellis Marsalis, Jr. in 1934. Although the city was noted for Dixieland and rhythm-and-blues, Ellis was more interested in the bebop sounds coming from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. His first recording was modern jazz music performed with fellow New Orleans musicians Ed Blackwell (who eventually ended up drumming for Ornette Coleman), clarinetist Alvin Batiste, bassist Richard Payne, and saxophonist Harold Battiste as the American Jazz Quintet.