New Orleans Calliope Tribute for Jazz Great Ellis Marsalis

April 6, 2020

NEW ORLEANS — A tourist riverboat calliope blasted hymn and gospel tunes across New Orleans’ French Quarter on Friday as a tribute to the late jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis.

Marsalis, who taught generations of jazz players, including four of his six sons, died Wednesday of pneumonia brought on by COVID-19.

On Friday, a medley including “How Great Thou Art” and “I’ll Fly Away” climaxed with “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Most of the city has been staying inside, but Tristan Dufrene was among several people making cellphone videos of the performance, which she said she’d learned about from an Instagram post.

“It was beautiful,” she said afterward.

About two dozen people, many of them journalists, spaced themselves along the Bienville Street wharf for the 15-minute performance by Debbie Fagnano, who plays calliope on the riverboat Natchez.

New Orleans has been especially hard-hit by the coronavirus outbreak and the state’s governor has warned that the region is projected to run out of ventilators by Tuesday and hospital beds five days later.

The boat may host brief Friday concerts as a morale-booster, since the sound carries a long way, said Adrienne Thomas, a spokeswoman for the steamboat company. “Perhaps next week we might be playing the tunes we usually play for Good Friday,” she said.

A few miles away, at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a sign saying classes are suspended until further notice was partly covered by one reading, “Rest In Peace Ellis. Forever in our hearts.”

Saxophone player Branford Marsalis, one of Ellis Marsalis’ sons, and singer and pianist Harry Connick Jr., who was among the elder Marsalis’ students, founded the center in 2011 to preserve New Orleans music and culture.

Ellis Marsalis’ son Wynton, a Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning trumpeter, is America’s most prominent jazz spokesman as artistic director of jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center.


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