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.