Cut to a small bar in the old city. Behind the winding streets and crowded Damascene houses, four musicians carry their bulky instruments under a tree sagging with oranges into a dim-lit entryway. Inside it is dark, almost impossible to see through the haze of smoke. At crowded tables, Syrians sit in their berets, their hands on glasses of Lebanese wine and smoking French cigarettes.
The band, immediately at home, set up and tune their instruments – a drum set from the 1960s, a wide double bass, and two saxophones. The feeling at the bar immediately shifts, and everyone smooths into a rhythm that mixes New York and Damascus and something nostalgic that I can’t quite describe. The band is poorly lit – their faces are pink and blue and yellow, one of them plays in shadow, but it’s exactly how it should be.
All I know about jazz is that I know nothing about it, but it doesn’t matter. Music is music, and tonight it is transformative. People look like they’ve walked out of photographs from Syria in the 1940s or 50s, the songs wind on for eight, nine, ten minutes – the musicians improvising off each other, knowing the music backwards and forwards and sideways – well enough to change it, build on it, and make it, not better, exactly – but make it fit the moment, the small and smoky bar, the movement of the crowd, the dim light.
Hours later, I emerge from the bar, reeking of smoke and cheap Syrian beer and that standard dive-bar stench, feeling like I’ve lost days inside. The old city is quiet enough that I can hear the echoes of the band as I walk down the cobblestone streets, exhausted but knowing that I was a part of that night – not just in helping bring the band here to share American culture with Damascus, but those unique moments that will exist only in the confines of that smoky bar for that one night where New York jazz took over a small part of Damascus.