Sol pushed the door open quietly and peered around it, though the room was large and noisy enough that he could probably have kicked it down without being noticed.
There were close to thirty black men scattered about inside, all chatting and laughing as though it were just a night at the saloon. For a moment, Sol thought he might have the wrong room, but then he spotted a couple of trombones propped against a set of drums and decided he was in the right place. He tightened his grip on his saxophone case and stepped inside. He picked out a couple of men leaning against a near wall talking quietly and approached.
"Excuse me," he said. "Can you tell me where to find James Reese Europe?"
The two men looked blankly at him for a moment, then turned to each other.
"Sabes lo que está diciendo?" one of them said.
The other shrugged. "Creo que quiere ver al señor Europe."
The first turned back to Sol. "Él está viniendo. Tendrá que esperar."
Sol blinked. "Sorry?"
"Él viene. Espera."
"Uh... sure. Thanks."
Sol turned away, feeling suddenly quite foolish. Perhaps this was a mistake. He hadn't been thinking clearly. He should go home and get a good night's sleep and—
"Alright, alright, that's enough talking!" a man bellowed. "I wanna hear some music!"
Sol turned to see a man as tall and as broad-shouldered as himself marching through the open door, crossing the room in long, meaningful strides. Sol knew instantly it was the man he'd come to see.
"Come on, move it!" Jim Europe said, clapping his hands together. "Música! Música!" Every man still seated jumped to their feet at once. The two men who had been leaning by the wall hurried past Sol to a table where a couple of instrument cases rested. They pulled them open and, to Sol's great surprise, each retrieved a saxophone. Sol could not recall the last time he'd seen another black saxophone player in New York—and now suddenly there were two of them.
The assorted men had soon assembled at the far end of the room with their various instruments in hand. Jim, meanwhile, had removed his jacket and was now wearing a pair of round glasses and brandishing a thin stick of wood: his conductor's baton. He waved it through the air with a masterly flourish.
"Alright, let's begin with Onward Christian Soldiers!" he said. "I want to hear the drums all playing at the same tempo this time! And bugles! If one of you plays a single note without—" He happened to glance over his shoulder and see Sol standing alone at the other end of the room.
"Hello?" Europe said.
"Hello," Sol replied.
"I don't believe I recognise your face. Can I help you?"
"I, uh... Well, I—"
"What's in the case? An instrument?"
Europe frowned. "It's cruel to keep an instrument of music in a case for too long. Why don't you take it out and let it breathe a while."
Feeling very hot all of a sudden, Sol set his case down on a table and took out his saxophone.
"Are you kidding me?" Europe said. "A saxophone?!"
Sol paused, wondering what was wrong, but then Jim shook his head and smiled.
"Where in Harlem have you been hiding?! I went all the way to Puerto Rico for black reed players! Oh well. Put that thing together and let's hear what it can do."
Sol assembled his sax at record speed, only too aware that every eye in the room was focused on him. He finished and licked his lips as he brought the instrument to his mouth. Jim crossed his arms and gave Sol an encouraging nod.
As Sol touched his fingers to the keys, he realised he had no idea what he was going to play. He found he didn't need to think, however, as his digits settled by themselves into an old composition that had once been his father's. He didn't know why he played it—it was something he only ever played as a warm-up—but it had the effect of soothing his nerves and relaxing his breathing. It was not a long piece. He kept his eyes closed throughout, only opening them again after his final note had faded into a warm echo.
When he was done, he looked at Lieutenant James Europe who nodded thoughtfully for a moment, then smiled broadly.
"Not bad," Europe said. "But I'll make you even better."
YOU ARE READING
Manhattan, 1929. The City is on its knees following a devastating crash in the stock market. Thanks to the Prohibition, criminals are making a killing off illegal bars while thousands of honest labourers can't find a single day's work. And in the Bo...