Insider: After Dark
Published: March 2009
By Peter S. Green
The Jazz Age is alive and well and living in Germany. Wynton Marsalis, America's favorite trumpeter, knows where
It's Saturday Night, and the marble lobby of Berlin's Hotel Adlon is humming with the lubricated buzz of convention-goers. The bar, where William Shirer had his last drinks as he watched the rise of Adolf Hitler, has been annexed by beefy guys in tasseled loafers and rugby shirts. Dietrich and Garbo passed through the lobby, but I'm sharing a settee with two young Berliners whose eyes dart obsessively toward the revolving door at the entrance, just like mine. The redhead is waiting for a Dutch tour operator she knows. My friend, photographer David Brauchli, and I are hoping the next spin of the door blows out trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, arguably the hottest pair of lips to play a trumpet since Louis Armstrong. Marsalis has promised to take us to one of the city's prime jazz clubs.
Earlier this afternoon, we'd dropped by his rehearsal at the Berlin Philharmonie. He was straining to harmonize the philharmonic, a 100-member gospel choir, and his own Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. In the aggressively angular 1960's complex, Marsalis's frenetic and energetic composition "All Rise" seemed slightly out of place. In the Adlon, one of Europe's grandest hotels, Marsalis's odes to the glory days of jazz would fit right in. When Caruso had a sore throat, legend has it, he cured it with a concoction whipped up by the hotel's chef, Auguste Escoffier. In Nazi times, Hitler's dalliance-prone propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, got jammed in a love triangle here with a cabaret singer and a dancer called La Jana. The Adlon is suffused with just the sort of tawdry stuff that inspires those long, sad trumpet riffs.
The thought of visiting Berlin's jazz sweet spots with Marsalis had conjured up an image of Christopher Isherwood's 1930's cabaret scene, with a modern-day Sally Bowles singing lustily in a darkened piano bar. But in today's Berlin, life is no cabaret. The danger and mystery of the 1930's, the nervous edge of the wall-bound post-war period, are all gone. Instead, the city is struggling to adapt to its new role as the capital of a united Germany. Starbucks and the Gap are just a stone's throw from trendy art galleries, and a Sony multiplex sits at the Potsdamer Platz, where Old Berlin's heart once beat. Low rents and the proximity to the east lure musicians, artists, and writers. But even as funky neighborhoods emerge, these days Berlin feels like a large construction site, with empty holes waiting to be filled. Many of the holes that have been plugged bear a nouveau-riche sheen that belies Berlin's gritty past.
The thing to know about jazzmen is that they love to improvise. As the hours roll by, we realize we may have been improvised right out of Marsalis's schedule. So we start again the following night, this time at the Philharmonie. Marsalis and his band are performing "Armstrong and Beyond," a 90-minute tour of classic American jazz, for an audience of Berliner yuppies, jazz fans, and a generous scattering of gray-haired philharmonic subscribers. The concert starts with a blast of horns, and Marsalis soon has the staid burghers of Berlin clapping and swaying to the swing beat of Satchmo.
When we meet backstage after the program, Marsalis assures us that tonight we're going to the A-Trane. After a few congenial exchanges on the state of his genre in Berlin, he launches into a defense of traditional jazz. "What's new?" he almost shouts. "Nobody says Tchaikovsky is old." He has reason to be defensive. Back in the States, music critics like to say that Marsalis is all about the past, that he too readily dismisses the cutting edge of modern jazz. He's still getting heat for last year's Jazz, the multi-part documentary that he put together with filmmaker Ken Burns. But in Berlin, none of that seems to matter.
This is a city that loves its jazz, old and new. In the Roaring Twenties, when Europe was still licking the wounds of World War I and Weimar Germany was a byword for decadence, jazz in Berlin was booming. Sam Wooding's early Jazz Age big band—which inspired the launch of Blue Note Records—had long layovers in Berlin during European tours. In 1930, when jazz was the equivalent of today's gangsta rap, saxophonist Sidney Bechet lived here after being kicked out of Paris for gunfighting. A few enthusiasts kept jazz alive when the Nazis banned it as bourgeois, and the occupying American armies helped to revive the music form in the Vaterland. "Berliners—like everyone else around the world—still love to swing," Marsalis tells me, as his Mercedes shows up to whisk us to the A-Trane, near Savignyplatz.
The streets of this west Berlin neighborhood are lined with elegant villas and low-rise, century-old apartment blocks. Its parks are tended, its streets well-swept. The club itself is a corner joint not much bigger than a Fifth Avenue living room; a program posted outside lists most of Berlin's best jazz players.
I'd prowled through the city's darker precincts before, uncovering dozens of other clubs: spacious ones like Quasimodo, a semi-underground den that these days plays more salsa than Satchmo; tiny holes-in-the-wall like the B-Flat, which, despite its picture window, is a dark, brooding blues joint; neighborhood nooks like the Bebop Bar, in the residential district of Kreuzberg. At the Parkhaus in Treptow, one of the oldest post-war clubs, in the smoke-filled basement of an old villa, local greats like Ludwig Petrovksy or the pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach fill the air with sound.
In the A-Trane, smoke wafts up around the spotlights; black-and-white prints of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey peer through the haze from lacquered walls so dark they appear to be made of nicotine stain. As the band plays Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire," Marsalis parks himself at the three-stool bar and unzips the smooth case of his Monette trumpet. I'm about to sidle up to him when a bushy-haired American blonde on the next stool squeaks out, "You're Wynton Marsalis!" I edge discreetly away. Hanging out with jazz musicians is still a tale of magnetic men and lonely women in smoky bars long past sensible bedtimes.
The dim space is packed with well-heeled bohemians in dark, expensive outfits, and Marsalis gets up to work the room like a host. He's embraced by a few young women who seem to have met him before: a German music student from a summer festival some years ago, a local jazz singer who's a friend of a friend. Eventually, the host turns into the elusive trumpeter and slips quietly back to the bar.
There's a Cajun word used in New Orleans, lagniappe, that means something thrown in for free. Tonight Marsalis and his band are the lagniappes at the A-Trane. A drum rolls, a saxophone blows a few notes, and from the back of the room trumpets blast, swinging in the air. Marsalis and his sidemen are winding through the crowd toward the tiny stage, blowing their horns like a flock of Gabriels. Sax player Ted Nash, trumpeter Marcus Printup, and drummer Herlin Riley parade in a wild meander while buoyant, knife-sharp notes and smooth rhythms cascade from their instruments. The crowd stomps and howls, and when Marsalis reaches center stage, the applause is deafening, the atmosphere electric. It's not like this every night at the A-Trane, and even the normally dour bartenders are moving and clapping to the rhythm.
A few numbers later, we're back at the bar, rambling with Marsalis about jazz and jazzmen and Old New Orleans. A question about Berlin draws a blank. At this point in the five-week tour, everything is a jumble of faces without places, and Marsalis is itching to get back to New York and his three kids. As he packs up his trumpet, the last cool notes echo into the quiet Berlin night. I'd love to get the world's greatest living jazz trumpeter to stick around for one more solo. Instead, I ask him what his best recordings are among his 40-odd discs. "I don't know man," he says. "I don't listen to 'em, I just play 'em."
Peter S. Green is based in Prague and writes for the New York Times.
All That Jazz
Berliners may be a buttoned-up bunch, but their jazz is still
red-hot. Here are some of the top spots to find cool cats.
105 Pestalozzistrasse; 49-30/313-2550; www.a-trane.de. The aristocrat of Berlin clubs.
12A Kantstrasse; 49-30/312-8086; www.quasimodo.de. Most Tuesdays showcase local musicians; Wednesdays are jam nights.
13 Rosenthaler Strasse; 49-30/280-6349. So small, you're practically sitting onstage.
40 Willibald-Alexis-Strasse; 49-30/6950-8526; www.bebop-bar.de. A pocket-sized club in the intellectual and affluent Kreuzberg district.
5 Puschkinallee; 49-30/533-7952. A smoky cellar in an old villa, on the scene for more than 30 years.
29 Badensche Strasse; 49-30/861-0080; www.badenscher-hof.de. An old-time Cajun café—cum—jazz joint. Small, but oh so cool.