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.