One night during my freshman year in high school, I called Ellis. The famed pianist, who died April 1 at 85 due to COVID-19, was my teacher–so it was “Mr. Marsalis” then, and I was terrified. One didn’t call him at home. But I’d found a chord progression I thought had never been heard on earth, so I dialed. His deep “Hello” still echoes in my mind.
“Mr. Marsalis! Listen to what I discovered!”
I explained it thoroughly.
“That’s good,” he said. “Now I’m gonna go back to my dinner.”
Years later, I reminded him of the story. He laughed and admitted he’d known those chords too. I asked why he hadn’t just taught them to me. “Because,” he said, “you had to figure it out yourself.”
Mr. Marsalis gave me the gift of self-discovery, a gift he shared with many others too, as he spent his last years doing what he loved, working with underserved young musicians at the New Orleans music center that bears his name. I’m a better musician–and man–because of him.
Connick is a Grammy and Emmy award-winning actor and singer
This appears in the April 20, 2020 issue of TIME.