reed into your mouthpiece properly. Yours was too loose.â He gave her the reed he was holding. âWeâll start with that.â
They walked back to the city across the Harbour Bridge. The buildings on the other side were wreathed in mist but they all still seemed to be standing. Pearl could make out the grey dome of the Observatory on the Millers Point hill, the clock tower of the general post office, the spire of the Marinersâ Church, and the wharfie pubs opposite Circular Quay.
She was still rattled by the bombings, could still hear explosions echoing in her ears, but as she strolled beside James she felt as if she were fuelled by some potent substance her body was manufacturing for the first time. It wasnât just the electric lunacy of love, or lust, but something more indefinable. James had agreed to give her lessons, whenever he could secure leave passes from the camp, and it was this, coupled with everything theyâd shared a few hours before, that sent a thrill through her.
Heâd been adamant about two things, though: first, that she had to practise what he taught her at least four hours a day; second, she needed a new saxophone. Her fatherâs old vaudeville alto was in terrible condition; James had noticed at the Booker T. Club the tarnished metal, the worn pads, the two lower keys held in place with rubber bands.
âIf youâre serious, Pearl,â he told her, âyou gotta get yourself a good axe. Not some piece of shit your daddy used to play.â
âOkay,â she murmured, knowing that sheâd never be able to afford one.
As they neared the south side of the bridge, they could hear orders being shouted from the decks of naval ships. Boats zigzagged across the harbour, leaving trails of silver foam. Pearl asked James about America, about the musicians heâd heard there. âHave you ever heard Artie Shaw?â she said. âHeâs my favourite bandleader.â James replied that heâd not only met the famous clarinettist, heâd jammed with him once in upstate New York.
Pearl was speechless. He then told her in a nonchalant voiceâoh, as casual as you likeâthat heâd also played with Count Basieâs band in Kansas City, along with the great saxophonist Lester Young. Heâd toured the South with Benny Goodman. Heâd met the great trombonist Jack Teagarden in New York and had got drunk with him in a bar in Harlem. And one day he literally ran into the famous hunchback drummer Chick Webb, who was walking with his head down through the foyer of the Apollo Theatre.
She, in turn, told him about the first time sheâd ever heard an American jazz band.
âSonny Clayâs Colored Idea,â she recalled. âA ten-piece band, twenty-five singers and dancers.â
Pearl and Martin were not even four years old when Aubrey took them to the Tivoli theatre. Pearl had a distinct memory of the moment the theatre curtain began to rise and the big, irreverent sound of the band bursting into the auditorium. And she was astonished to see the skin of all the musicians was almost as dark as the black keys on a piano. She sat holding onto the velvet armrests of her seat, mesmerised by the fast, whimsical beat of the music and the appearance of the men who made it.
âIt was the first Negro jazz band ever to tour Australia,â she added. âAnd I knew on that very afternoon what I wanted to be.â
James smiled. âYou wanted to be coloured?â
âNo!â She elbowed him. âI knew I wanted to be a jazz musician.â
A few years later, she and Martin and Charlie Styles, a little boy who lived up the road and played the cornet, would pretend that they had formed their own band and would walk single file through Kings Cross, banging pots and pans and taking turns blowing into the boyâs horn.
It began to rain. Pearl and James ran down the concrete stairs and into a tunnel that sloped towards