Covid-19 is ravaging the music world

ellis marsalis jr new orleans jazz legend dies coronavirus ctn vpx_00000915

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)A dispiriting couple of weeks in the lives of music fans have now climaxed with the death of Bill Withers, whose lean, leathery-tough vocals on such pop classics as "Ain't No Sunshine," "Use Me," "Just the Two of Us" and "Lean on Me" were deeply woven into the soundtracks of several generations' lives.

Gene Seymour
Withers died Monday at 81 of what his family has described as "heart complications." His death has not been linked to the Covid-19 virus. But his loss, coming at about the same time that "Lean on Me" has resurfaced as a global anthem of collective will during the coronavirus pandemic, nonetheless feels like another in an already seemingly relentless series of recent body blows to the music world.
    Among the casualties: Adam Schlesinger, Fountains of Wayne founding member, lead vocalist and songwriter; Joe Diffie, Grammy-winning country-music singer; Alan Merrill, best known for writing Joan Jett's 1980s anthem, "I Love Rock and Roll;" Manu Dibango, a Cameroon saxophonist whose riffs on the hit 1972 dance tune, "Soul Makossa," helped spearhead worldwide interest in African pop; and Aurlus Mabelle, the Congolese song-and-dance man dubbed king of the eclectic blend of black pop genres known as "soukous."
    Of all music genres, however, it is jazz that's been struck especially hard and deep by Covid-19. Four musicians of varied ages have died in the last few weeks from the disease, the most recent of which are Ellis Marsalis and Bucky Pizzarelli, two master instrumentalists who found widespread fame relatively late in their storied careers and also passed their legacies on to their children.
    Marsalis, who was 85, was a fixture in his native New Orleans as a pianist doggedly advancing the cause of bop and other post-1940s jazz music in a city more inclined to embrace the pre-swing era of the 1920s. Over time, Marsalis' commitment, chops and reputation as a music educator won him respect and affection from the musical cognoscenti of his hometown.
    Of Marsalis' many prominent students, including Terrence Blanchard and Harry Connick Jr., the most celebrated were four of his six sons. The achievements of Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis were considerable enough to transform the Marsalises into the unofficial royal family of jazz. Along with their dad, they also were staunch and at times acerbic defenders of jazz tradition which by the time Branford and Wynton became breakout stars in the early 1980s, also encompassed the kind of hard bop music their father continued to play into his 70s and 80s.
    Ellis Marsalis is joined by two of his sons, Branford (left) and Wynton.
    Bucky Pizzarelli, who died at 94, was a buoyantly lyrical guitarist who spent most of his early career as a session musician working in recording studios and with such bands as Benny Goodman's and the Tonight Show's NBC Orchestra. He became a fixture in New York nightclubs, playing in several small ensembles with such musicians as saxophonists Zoot Sims and Bud Freeman and violinists Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli.
    Most noteworthy of these professional affiliations was the one he