David Hajdu’s profile of jazz eminence Wynton Marsalis — collected in Hajdu’s new book, Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture — has this wonderful description of a you-had-to-be-there moment when Marsalis was playing with saxophonist Charles McPherson at the Village Vanguard:
The fourth song was a solo showcase for the trumpeter . . . a ballad, “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You,” unaccompanied. Written by Victor Young, a film-score composer, for a 1930s 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 act 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 longer: “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 sing-song 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 hallway 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 tempo, and ended up exactly where he had left off: “. . . with . . . you . . .” The ovation was tremendous.
I’ll bet it was. “I Don”t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You” was written in 1932, and it’s been irresistible to instrumentalists and vocalists alike. The clip above is from trumpeter Clifford Brown, and here’s Frank Sinatra wringing a few tears from the words:
And now here’s Illinois Jacquet: