Altas Oscuros

Legends of Street Music in the Big Easy

Live music fills the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans, and has its own mysterious lore

BY JANINE TROUBADOUR  -   OCT 15, 2019

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Busking—performing impromptu on the street for cash tips—is a staple of New Orleans culture. Walk the city any day and find a solo crooner or a fourteen piece brass band. But be careful, sometimes the music can get a little too infectious.

Perhaps the pinnacle of busking lore is the legend of Ace Marcellin. The clarinetist supreme sprang onto the scene sometime in the 1950s, setting up in little Lafayette Square with his instrument, a bucket for tips, and no permit. It should have been a dime-a-dozen performance — enjoyable, and quickly forgotten.

But something was in the air that night. The music was captivating, and by the time he finished his first tune, everyone in the square had gathered close around. But that was only the beginning.

Petunia Perez, a young woman who saw the show, described the experience in her journal.

“One woman started dancing, and soon we were all dancing like crazy. The music musta been loud because the crowd kept growing, people showed up already dancing, like the moment they heard it they fell into a trance and came round. I thought I was in one, too, and it was scary, but mostly it felt so good. I don’t remember the music ending. I thought I mighta dreamt it, but everyone else remembered too, and we all felt the same. Best night of my life.”

 

Other accounts mirror Perez’, but some have darker endings. At least three members of the audience were still dancing in place the next morning, long after the music ended. One died of exhaustion before she could be released from her frenzy.

 

Thus began the incredible, short-lived career of Ace Marcellin. Accounts of his subsequent concerts are even scarcer and more outlandish. Dig deeper to learn more… if you dare.

 

While you’re in town, try getting swept up in some impromptu music just like Ace’s crowd once was. It may not be as legendary, but maybe that’s for the best. No one wants to die of dancing, after all.