A rainy day in May. Sydney was alive with swirling leaves and the cries of flying fruit bats. Afternoon showers fell on wilting flowers, sandstone buildings, vegetable stalls, a war bond rally in Martin Place. It dimpled the harbour, slicked the surface of ship decks, flooded gutters littered with condoms and cigarette butts. It sprinkled on women queuing for rations, factory workers waiting for cancelled trams, Asian immigrants who’d been interned on the grounds of a mental asylum after Japan had entered the war. In the evening, it fell on American servicemen as they picked up local women, on prostitutes out to score a greenback or two, on Australian soldiers as they brawled with GIs for stealing most of their girls.
Near midnight, it drummed a soft syncopation against the tin roofs of Albion Street. Pearl heard the rhythms as she darted beneath awnings, catching up with her twin brother, Martin, and wondered if he could hear them, too; triplets, paradiddles, shuffles, a beating heart. She was nearly eighteen, but that night was the first time she’d heard music in the weather.
“Hey!” she cried as Martin, holding his tenor sax case, dodged an overflowing roof gutter and leaped over a puddle. “Wait for me!” She, too, dodged the waterfall and jumped the puddle, but landed in another one, splattering the side of her dress with muddy water. Martin laughed.
They’d just finished performing at the Trocadero, the biggest and best ballroom in the Southern Hemisphere. Martin played second tenor in the men’s big band; Pearl played second alto in the girls’ big band. The two jazz orchestras alternated sets on a revolving stage backed by an Art Deco glass shell lit by hundreds of coloured lights. The dance floor was sprung, the clientele was posh, and the twins were well aware that it was the best-paid gig in Sydney. On the downside, the Trocadero orchestras performed virtually the same repertoire each night—light dance music to accompany fox-trots and waltzes; certainly no raucous jazz or swinging blues, which was why Pearl was following Martin through the storm that night, she in a white lace gown and high heels streaked with mud, her brother in black tie and tails. Martin was taking her to the only place in town where she’d be allowed to sit in with a band and play hot jazz into the early hours of the morning. At least, she hoped she’d be allowed to sit in. Martin had jammed with this particular band previously but it would be Pearl’s first time.
A few months before, the first black Americans had marched off troop ships and into the streets of Sydney to bolster the country’s defence force in the Pacific. Because of American segregation laws, however, they were banned from most Sydney restaurants, hotels, and, of course, the high-class Trocadero Ballroom. The Booker T. Washington Club was the only entertainment venue in the state for black GIs. Pearl had never even met a black American before, let alone played in a band with them.
As they approached the hall built onto the side of an old mansion, the trill of a clarinet escaped through the open windows and Pearl felt a flutter of anticipation in her stomach. They skipped up the front steps and onto the veranda, saxophone cases banging against their legs. She could hear the music more clearly now—an up-tempo version of “Basin Street Blues”—and couldn’t believe she was about to enter an all-black club and play jazz for the very people who’d created the form. She now felt not just excited, but as if she herself were exciting.
Martin pushed open the door and almost walked into an Aboriginal girl who was serving as the door monitor. The girl’s skin was a pale mahogany colour, Pearl noticed, not the near-ebony of the GIs she’d seen walking the city streets. She was wearing a grey crepe dress that was too big for her and hung off her shoulders in folds.
“Hi, Roma!” said Martin. “This is my only sister, Pearl.” Then he added, perhaps unnecessarily, “My twin sister.” The siblings were both tall and skinny, with heart-shaped faces and violet-blue eyes, slightly hooded. Pearl’s ash blond hair was a little fairer than Martin’s, though, and that night she’d piled it on top of her head and skewered the loose bun with knitting needles. The rain had curled the stray wisps into ringlets.
Roma frowned at Pearl. Technically, white women were banned from the club, but Martin had assured his sister that the ban was rarely enforced.
“She’s come to sit in with the band, Rome.”
Roma rested a hand on her hip and pursed her lips.
“Oohh, come on, baby!” Martin dropped his saxophone, took Roma in his arms, and began dancing her over the black-and-white tiles. Pearl was taken aback by their playfulness.
Roma threw her head back, and her black hair fanned around her shoulders to reveal a long graceful neck. She struggled to free herself, but only halfheartedly, and Martin drew her closer and held her tight. It was as if Roma had become Martin’s twin and she, Pearl, were the stranger. As the music ended, he led Roma into a dip so low her hair brushed against the floor.
When he righted her and she had regained her balance, she giggled and punched him on the chest. Trying to keep a straight face, she then pointed to Pearl. “No swearing. No dancing. No fraternising with the boys.” She glanced at Martin, swallowing a smile. “Is that clear?”
“Hear, hear,” said Martin.
Pearl saluted her. “Aye, aye!”
“And don’t fill up your dance card, Captain,” Martin added, touching Roma on the shoulder. “Later on, I plan to give you a real swing around the ballroom!”
Roma giggled again and backed away toward the front door. Pearl followed Martin through a library hung with sepia-tinged photographs of stern men in suits. She recognised Abraham Lincoln with his distinctive beard, but the black faces were unfamiliar. The names on the brass plates at the bottom of the frames were equally obscure: W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington. It was all so new to her—the portraits, her brother’s behaviour—that suddenly she wanted to turn back. She caught the sleeve of Martin’s dinner jacket, and he turned toward her. Her hand dropped from his sleeve, and she opened her mouth to ask him to take her home, but before Pearl could utter a word Martin linked his arm in hers and wheeled her around.
“Don’t worry, Miss Willis,” he said, putting on his best posh British accent. “Your prince will accompany you to the dance.”
She had to laugh, which relaxed her a little. They walked arm in arm through the library, her brother so close she could smell the lemony starch of his collar. Then the door to the auditorium swung open and there were crashing waves of laughter and music and she forgot that she was nervous, that her dress was streaked with mud, that she was white. Some of the windows were cracked and the stage sagged to the left—so different from the Trocadero Ballroom, with its revolving stage and bevelled-glass wall panels. The light was dim, but through the coils of cigarette smoke she could make out the shapes of people gyrating on the dance floor, couples spinning away from each other and back again, a girl somersaulting over the back of a crouching man, the dip and swivel of hips. The GIs were all in uniform, though some had loosened their collars and rolled up their sleeves, and when she looked closer she could see sequins of sweat glistening against their faces.
Each black man dancing had a black woman in his arms. She knew that Amcross had recruited scores of Aboriginal and Pacific Islander girls to serve as dance partners for the Americans, but still she was taken aback to see so many black Australian girls in one place. She noticed a few of the dancers slowing down to stare at her. Some of the girls looked hostile, as if offended by her presence. The men leaning against the walls sipping beers nudged one another and nodded in her direction, and all at once she felt as if she were an alien. Throat dry, she glanced at Martin, who smiled and winked at her in a big-brotherly kind of way, even though Pearl was actually ten minutes older.
“Car’n, Burly,” said Martin, invoking his long-time nickname for her. He cocked his head. “Follow my lead.” Martin threaded his way between the dancers, head held high, and Pearl shadowed him as they made their way toward the stage. She knew the bandleader, Merv Sent, and his quartet, the Senders. In his heyday, Merv had been the first clarinettist for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, until, the rumour went, he woke up one morning after a two-day drinking binge to find himself lying on top of the Harbour Bridge, clutching a half-bottle of rum in one hand and his clarinet in the other. He had no memory of his drunken crawl along the steep arc of metal the night before. The police had to summon the fire brigade to get him down and once it got into the papers he was fired from the orchestra. For the last year he’d been touring outback army camps in an entertainment unit, but was now on leave, along with the other three musos in the band, and was picking up some extra cash during his furlough.
The tune ended and applause rose through the hall. When it died down Pearl could hear the rhythm of the rain against the hall’s tin roof, like a loud drumroll.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Merv announced, “this is Merv Sent and the Senders!”
“Where are you sending us, Merv?” cried a man from the audience, his Southern drawl filling the room.
“I’m sending you all completely mad!” cried Merv. He wiped his clarinet reed with the hem of his jacket. “And believe me,” he added, “it’s not a long trip.”
The audience laughed and clapped.
Merv gave the twins a quick wave, beckoning them to join the band. Martin already had his case open and was fitting his tenor sax together, but Pearl hesitated. It seemed as if everyone in the room was still staring at her, appraising her skin, her hair. She’d never felt so white, so completely naked.
Martin leaped up the stage stairs while Pearl pieced together the old alto sax that she’d inherited from her father. Aubrey Willis had taught them the basics, but since they were eight she and Martin had studied privately at the Conservatorium of Music, learning classical music, theory, and composition. Everything they knew about jazz, though, had been picked up from listening to imported records and learning firsthand on gigs.
Merv counted in “St. Louis Blues” and the band plunged into the first verse.
Pearl joined Martin under the spotlight. She sensed a slowing of the dancers again as they gazed up at her. Americans were often bemused—even amused—at the sight of an Australian girl playing jazz saxophone. To them, she was like a sideshow curiosity and, after sets at the Trocadero, she usually enjoyed being surrounded by Yanks, who’d ask her where she’d learned to blow as well as she did. But she’d never performed in front of black Americans before, and was unsure of how they’d react.
Martin gave her a nudge in the ribs and she cleared her throat, parted her feet—mirroring him—and they began to play. Gazing out at the dancers, she was astonished to see so many variations of skin colour—blue-black and mahogany, milky tea and sepia—all marbling together in swirls of rising smoke. And there were none of the waltzes and cha-chas of the Trocadero Ballroom. As the band hit the second chorus, women were sliding between the parted legs of their partners. Pleated skirts snapped in time with the music while maps of perspiration formed on the backs of the men’s shirts. She caught sight of Roma, dancing around the hall with a short black American, her loose dress flapping around her like a flag in a gale.
Merv counted in “Bugle Call Rag,” an up-tempo tune that Pearl didn’t know very well. She wasn’t sure of the melody, and the pace was so fast she could barely keep up. Martin was already on top of the beat, blowing effortlessly into his tenor as if he’d played the song every day of his life. As she struggled to keep up she sensed the reed in her mouthpiece softening between her lips; it felt like a limp, useless piece of rubber and was ruining her tone. She tried halving the tempo, then just blowing harmony, but to her dismay a couple of wrong notes escaped the bell of her sax. The band was into the fourth chorus and next it would be Pearl’s turn to take a solo and she was wondering how on earth she’d get through it when there was a commotion down the back of the hall. A group of servicemen stood hooting and whistling, and then another tenor saxophone suddenly began howling.
Through the half-light, she couldn’t quite see who was playing it; she could only hear the runs between the registers that were fast and sharp and accenting the back beat. The sound seemed to be coming from everywhere, up through the floorboards, from the very walls themselves, even bouncing off the pressed tin ceiling. The paper streamers on the windows shook. The crowd parted and now she could see a glowing tenor gliding through the room like a beacon through fog, followed by a tall man who was blowing into it. He was playing so loudly that Pearl could hardly hear the pianist’s chord changes and finally gave up. The man swayed jauntily from side to side as if the instrument were his dance partner. As he walked up the stairs to the stage the dancers slowed and then stopped altogether to stand and watch.
He was well over six feet, wearing standard American military trousers and shirt. Like all of the men at the club, he was clean-shaven, his black curly hair cropped short. His skin, however, was fairer than most: a pale walnut colour that shone with perspiration. Pearl stepped sideways in order to see him better as he gazed straight out into the coloured lights, a sad, pensive expression on his face.
At the end of the next chorus, the crowd was cheering so enthusiastically that he went on to play another. Soon his solo was dipping and surging between registers. At one point he was making a hard staccato sound as if he were repeatedly pecking a woman on the lips, and there was something he was doing with his diaphragm—she couldn’t tell what—that allowed him to play with one long, seamless breath. Sometimes his saxophone growled, then whimpered, then soared up into a crescendo of triple-tongued high notes. Pearl had never heard anyone play like this, not even on the many American records she’d heard.
She was in such awe of him that she forgot to come in with the band; or, rather, she was too intimidated. The sensation was like stage fright, but even worse. She edged away from the other musicians, trying to be inconspicuous, but as she stepped into the shadows she lost her footing and stumbled down the stairs of the bandstand. She heard the crowd laughing, could see the smirks on the faces of passing dancers, including Roma, who had kicked off her shoes and was now dancing with a taller man.
Pearl dumped her sax against its open case and plunged into the crowd, mortified, willing herself to disappear. The band was wailing now, and above it all was the triumphant howl of that damn saxophone.
Over the music, Pearl heard her brother call her name, but she ignored him, rushing through the tobacco-coloured light toward the exit.
* * *
Outside on the covered veranda, she leaned against the wall and tried to catch her breath. She’d never felt like such an idiot—not even during her sight-reading exams at the Conservatorium, or her first professional gig with Miss Molly’s Sunshine Orchestra. Even her bandleader at the Trocadero had led her to believe that she was something of a musical prodigy, but now she suspected that he’d been humouring her because she was a girl, or that she was only what her father liked to call a big fish in a little pool.
The band finished playing “Bugle Call Rag” and she could hear a purr of applause from inside the dance hall. She shivered and rubbed her arms, feeling stupid for having left her alto behind; she couldn’t go home without walking back inside to fetch it. Perhaps Martin would bring her sax out to her, or she could ask the woman at the desk to collect it—but then the man who’d been playing the wild solo suddenly appeared beside her, holding out her case.
Up close, he was about half a foot taller than she was, and she had to tilt her head back to look him in the face. Standing in the light pooling out from the hallway, his skin didn’t seem as light as it had in the dance hall—more like the colour of wet sand. His teeth gleamed white as he smiled, and she noticed he had beautiful, unnaturally long lashes framing a pair of grey-blue eyes.
“Sunshine,” he announced, “you play a mean axe!” His accent—all melodious, curly diphthongs—was straight from the American South.
She reached for the sax, but he grabbed hold of her wrist with his free hand.
“Bad reed,” he told her. “Happens to the best.”
She wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but she nodded.
He put down her saxophone, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and held it out to her.
She hesitated. She didn’t smoke but, looking up into his eyes again, she felt a stab of excitement. Wanting to feel grown up and worldly, she pulled one from the pack and placed it between her lips.
He struck a match and lit first her cigarette and then his own. For a few moments they stood facing each other, Pearl taking shallow, tentative drags.
“Where’d you learn to play like that?” Smoke leaked from her nostrils, and she began to cough.
“Blow it out through your mouth,” he suggested, smiling. “Otherwise you’ll choke.”
She snorted and took another short drag.
“Where I come from,” he said, glancing over the wet lawn, “everyone plays. Ain’t nothing else much to do.”
She deliberately tapped on her cigarette, even though it didn’t need ashing. “And where’s that?” she asked.
“Looozy-anna!” he drawled, then leaned in closer to her and whispered, “Home of the devil’s music.” He flared his nostrils and widened his eyes, and she began to laugh.
He shook his head. “Close. Grew up on a farm near the Mississippi border. But I been to New Orleans plenty of times. First time when I was seven. Went with my cousin. That was when I first heard King Oliver play.”
At the sound of those magic words, “King Oliver,” Pearl almost stopped breathing. She’d only ever heard the great cornettist on her bandleader’s old records.
“You heard the King Oliver?”
He nodded. “On a riverboat.”
“The bloke who taught Louis Armstrong?”
“The one and only.”
The cigarette smouldered in her hand, forgotten. “What did he sound like?”
“Good,” he said simply. “He’d turn a tune upside down, inside out, slap it against the wall, and then bounce it off the ceiling.”
He flicked his butt into a nearby metal tray and Pearl copied him but missed, and had to chase her butt as it rolled across the veranda.
Embarrassed, she glanced at the musician who, she could see, was trying not to laugh.
“Sunshine,” he said, “what’s your name?”
“Pearl, my name is James.” He held out his hand and she noticed how big it was, and that his palm was not the same colour as his fingers, more a musky pink, like the underside of a tongue. “James Washington.”
When she shook his hand it felt like a big, warm mitten around hers. “How long’ve you been in Sydney, James?”
“Nearly a week. But they’ve had me stuck in camp till tonight and I ain’t seen no sights or nothing.” He leaned in and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “’Cept you, of course. You’re a pretty good sight.”
Pearl felt her face growing hot.
“And you sound great, too,” he added. “You really wail on that alto.”
She didn’t really believe him but appreciated the praise. Smiling to herself, she glimpsed a shadowy couple near the hedge, kissing.
Pearl started to mumble, “Thanks,” when James cut her off.
“Hey, Sunshine,” he said, “what are you doing tomorrow night? What’s say you and me go out?”
She was so surprised she didn’t know what to say. If her mother found out she were planning to date a black American she’d probably have a stroke. She picked up her sax case and, stalling for time, gazed into the garden. With a start, she recognised the embracing couple. It was her brother, and his hands had disappeared under Roma’s dress.
It struck her that her twin was behaving exactly as he wished, without worrying what their mother or anyone else thought. Besides, Pearl had never felt so curious about another person before. Maybe it was his accent or the way he looked into her eyes when he spoke. The way he blew his sax.
“Do you like fish and chips?” she asked.
He tilted his head to one side and said, “I like ’em if you do.”
“Do you know where Circular Quay is?”
“Seen it on the map. Right by the harbour.”
From the corner of her eye she saw Martin pressing Roma against the trunk of a tree. “Let’s meet at wharf five,” she said. “Say, six o’clock?”
“Make it six-thirty,” he replied. “And don’t be late.”
And then he leaned down and kissed her briefly on the top of her head. Her scalp tingled at the touch of his lips.