From “Dare to Rest” Penn Baccalaureate Address, Sunday May 17, 2009 by Dr. Kirk Byron Jones. In University of Pennsylvania Almanac Supplement, May 26, 2009.
On a Tuesday evening in late August 2001, Pulitzer Prize winning trumpeter and composer, Wynton Marsalis was playing at the Village Vanguard – one of the world’s most famous jazz clubs. David Hajdu was there to see, hear and relay this extraordinary moment:
“He played a ballad, ‘I don’t Stand A Ghost of a Chance with You,’ unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930’s romance, the piece can bring out the sadness in any scene, and Marsalis appeared deeply attuned to its melancholy. He performed the song in murmurs and sighs, at points nearly talking the words in notes. It was a wrenching art of creative expression. When he reached the climax, Marsalis played the final phrase, the title statement, in declarative tones, allowing each successive note to linger in the air a bit long. “I don’t stand a …ghost …of a…chance.” The room was silent until, at the most dramatic point, someone’s cell phone went off, blaring a rapid singsong melody in electronic bleeps.
People started giggling and picking up their drinks. The moment – the whole performance – unraveled. Marsalis paused for a beat, motionless, and his eyebrows arched. I scrawled on a sheet of notepaper, MAGIC RUINED. The cell-phone offender scooted into the hall as the chatter in the room grew louder. Still frozen at the microphone, Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation – which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad temp – and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with …you.” The ovation was tremendous.”