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Insider: After Dark

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.

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