Marsalis was born in Mississippi and moved to New Orleans in 1921. At a time when many hotels were closed to blacks, his Marsalis Motel hosted such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He also assisted local blacks in registering to vote through the Boosters Club.
But his lasting legacy will be his descendents, often cited as the first family of American jazz. Ellis Marsalis Jr., is a leading New Orleans pianist; his son Wynton, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln, sparked a renaissance in traditional jazz when he emerged in the 1980s, and remains a major if sometimes controversial figure. Three of Wynton's brothers are jazz musicians as well: saxophonist Branford, a pop and jazz star in his own right; trombonist Delfeayo; and drummer Jason.