Show Me Your License, Daddy-O

How New York City tried to regulate bebop to death

In May 1951, the famed saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker stepped onstage at Birdland, the Manhattan club named in his honor, to do some guest solo work for a band led by the Afro-Cuban percussionist Machito. It would be 15 months before Parker would grace a New York City stage again.

While his Harlem peers were busy laying the foundation for a new generation of jazz music, Parker was forced to go on the road, rehashing old standards with big bands and pickup rhythm sections. The reason: Bird had been stripped of his cabaret card, a license then required of all persons working in New York City nightclubs.

For more than two decades musicians, comedians, and anyone else employed by a Gotham nightclub would be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed by police in exchange for a license to work. The card had to be renewed every two years, and it could be revoked at the whim of the police. The story of the cabaret card illustrates how small men with a little bit of power can inhibit creative expression, stifle artistic growth, and humiliate individual citizens, all in the name of the “public good.”

The cabaret card had its origins in the roaring ’20s. Prohibition made outlaws out of ordinary Americans, and the allure of booze, jazz, and debauchery brought the upper and lower classes together in clandestine after-hours spots. It was the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and white New Yorkers frequently made the trip uptown, looking for adventure and an escape from the tight moral constraints of downtown society.

In 1926, New York City passed the Cabaret Law, legislation intended not only to curb the growing influence of the Prohibition-fueled mob but also to preserve the morality of innocent people who might fall sway to the shady characters of the night scene. (As the Alderman’s Committee suggested in its report on the bill: “the ‘wild’ stranger and the foolish native should have the check-reign applied a little bit.”) The Cabaret Law required a special license for any establishment offering “any musical entertainment, singing, dancing, or other similar amusement” in connection with food or drink service. This broad definition of cabaret would apply to just about any entertainment venue other than formal theaters and concert halls. There was, unsurprisingly, an exception made for large, lucrative hotels.

New York nightlife thrived unabated throughout the ’20s, and even the Great Depression couldn’t stop the City That Never Sleeps. But in 1931 responsibility for cabaret licensing was shifted from the Department of Licensing to the New York City Police Department. With the shift came a new emphasis on stringent enforcement and more careful scrutiny of everyone involved in the operation of a cabaret, from the owners to the busboys.

The federal repeal of Prohibition in December 1933 would lift the blinds on the city’s thriving night scene. Swing music was coming into being and New Yorkers had become accustomed to the jazz life. Clandestine speakeasies—like those that populated a four-block stretch of 52nd Street, later known to jazz musicians simply as “The Street”—became legitimate nightclubs. But included in the State of New York’s new Alcohol Beverage Control Law was a provision that barred any person with a criminal record from working in a bar, giving justification to the city police’s growing focus on individual employees.

As the ’30s progressed, the New York jazz scene changed. With 52nd Street on the rise (and after a 1935 riot in Harlem) fewer white New Yorkers were interested in taking the trip uptown. The nascent swing craze brought more complicated dance steps (and therefore fewer people dancing), while one-upsmanship among star instrumentalists had more people listening. Soloists such as Benny Goodman Band drummer Gene Krupa began attracting fans of their own, and big bands competed fiercely for the best of the lot. With new incentives to hone their soloing chops, theater and ballroom musicians began attending after-hours jam sessions. It was in these competitive and exclusive jam sessions that the new, complex musical language eventually known as bebop came into being.

The jam session would not remain exclusive for long. As early as 1935, record store owner Milt Gabler was hosting Sunday afternoon jams and by 1936 he had moved it to the Famous Door on 52nd Street. As more jazz fans began to seek out the “genuine” experience of a jam session, small clubs became fashionable. By the end of the decade, a promoter could turn a profit in a tiny club with a small house band and the promise of some big name soloists “sitting in.” The audience was now in close proximity and the line between performer and spectator was becoming blurred.

At the same time, the police kept tightening their scrutiny of musicians. By 1941, a full regimen of fingerprints, photographs, and police interviews was required for all performers wishing to perform in a New York City nightclub.

More than just a barrier to work, the cabaret card for beboppers was an impediment to self-expression and artistic fulfillment. While originating in nightclubs, bebop represented something much more than bar music. The color line had not been broken in American symphony orchestras, so for a young black musician at a prestigious music conservatory—Miles Davis at Julliard, for example—sharing a cramped stage in a 52nd Street nightclub with someone like Charlie Parker was the highest realization of artistic ambition. But before he could do so, a musician would have to be judged not just by lauded masters and discerning aficionados but by the police. 

Cops distrusted beboppers for three main reasons: The new breed of jazzmen were anti-establishment, they were confrontational in matters of race, and they had a fondness for heroin. The police had an unlikely ally in their crusade against the upstarts: older establishment jazz musicians who had their own reasons to dislike the beboppers. 

In a 1951 Ebony article, Cab Calloway, a king of the 1930s jazz world, decried the widespread drug use in the current jazz scene. Though Calloway didn’t single anyone out by name, the magazine illustrated his essay with photos of bebop musicians, and the publication coincided with an upswing in police enforcement. One musician snared in this crackdown was Charlie Parker.

Bird’s cabaret card was taken away in 1951 after a judge handed him a three-month suspended sentence, presumably for possession of heroin. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Parker’s art. Having been one of the founding fathers of bebop, Parker spent the late ’40s experimenting with producer Norman Granz, and in 1950 he cut his first record with Machito. While there had always been interest in the integration of Latin American rhythms into jazz, the critical mass of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in New York City after World War II was creating an explosive new type of music. Sadly, Parker’s experimentation was cut short.

What followed instead was a series of one-nighters from Framingham to Altadena. Lon Flanigan Jr., an audience member at one of Parker’s 1952 gigs at the Times Square Hotel in Rochester, recalled the local pianist on the gig playing the jazz standard “Honeysuckle Rose” in “a style that could not be classified as jazz of any type by any stretch of the imagination.” While Parker had a reputation for transcending poor rhythm sections, there is no question that playing with lesser bassists, drummers, and piano players inhibited his performances. More importantly, Parker was an artist who thrived on challenge and competition. Being sent out on the road to play with musicians who had not caught up with the music he invented 10 years earlier only accelerated a downward personal spiral of addiction, erratic behavior, and cirrhosis.

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  • waaminn||

    Sometimes man you jsut gottta hit and run, thats all.

    www.ImaAnon.tk

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Ah, so Bloomberg is merely channeling the ghosts of these earlier NYC Nannies. NYC, you deserve everything that you put up with.

  • $park¥||

    small men with a little bit of power can inhibit creative expression, stifle artistic growth, and humiliate individual citizens, all in the name of the "public good."

    Surely we don't need a two page long article to express this.

  • Ted S.||

    True, but this is the sort of article that I'm sure will be of interest to people like jazz aficionados. It's the sort of thing I can link to in other forums to show how licensing schemes have always been an awful idea.

  • JD the elder||

    I'm a native New Yorker and involved in informal cabaret/theater performance, and I never knew about this. There are a few vestiges left, like the wretched "cabaret license", which says that if a bar, restaurant, theater, etc. permits patrons to dance, they're breaking the law unless they have a special "cabaret license". It was probably intended to crack down on unsafe clubs (hello, Brazil), but it turned into a way to bully legitimate establishments for daring to permit their patrons to do a few dance steps.

  • ChrisO||

    I'm sure there are still bribes involved. That's why the law is still in place.

  • db||

    I can't see alt-text on my mobile browser, so I don't know if the obvious alt-text was used:

    Matt Welch, in his pre "Sensual Sax" days.

  • Ted S.||

    I don't see any photo to have alt-text.

  • db||

    It's on the main Hit and Run page.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    It's on the HyR summary, and it has no alt-text.

  • SIV||

    By 1941, a full regimen of fingerprints, photographs, and police interviews was required for all performers wishing to perform in a New York City nightclub.

    My county still does this for what they call "cabaret dancers".You wait in the same line and go through the same procedure for permission to carry a concealed weapon.

  • Ted S.||

    Apparently Levy’s pull only extended far enough to get police to look the other way when Holiday performed at his club.

    Something that I've said over and over regarding campaign finance laws holds true here as well. We (well, not I or the rest of us here) give Big Government enormous power to *uck up people's lives. It is only logical that people will go to great lengths to ensure that Big Government is *ucking up somebody else's life. And yet, there are people who think the proper response is to give Big Government more power.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    That's my big gripe with Occupy Wall Street. They got the basic idea right, that Wall Street made a mess of the economy, but they refuse to see the connection with government, and their solution is to have the government impose more regulation and crack down on Wall Street. How can anyone in today's world, with all the information available, be so willfully naive as to think the government and Wall Street are separate entities, or that the cronies in government would want to crack down on the cronies on Wall Street? I can understand how they don't have enough experience with the real world to understand how more red tape just exacerbates problems, but to not see how Wall Street and the government are the same people is beyond my comprehension.

  • ChrisO||

    I'll bet you'd find that most of them had parents of the same persuasion--hard to break a lifetime's worth of programming that "business = bad, government = good." I see it even in my own extended family.

  • bmp1701||

    Play it, friend-o.

  • ChrisO||

    This article is a valuable reminder that there was never really a golden age of liberty in this country, if local and state governments are included in the analysis. The focus of tyranny might have changed over the years and become more pervasive, but there have always been dimestore tyrants running around city hall.

  • cavalier973||

    I'd say that the Westward movement especially the time before the Civil War) was fairly close to a golden age of liberty; but it only directly applied to the people who moved West.

  • cavalier973||

    Why do people still live in NYC?

  • Rufus J. Firefly||

    Why did people still live in Rome even after it was open to rape and pillage?

    As for NYC and the artists, unions act as a deterent to creativity as well. For example, they ain't gonna build something too complicated. So an architect is hampered that way.

    They, the creeps in law enforcement, must have driven a lot of artists nuts.

    Permits are A RACKET. Nothing more, nothing else.I see that shit here in Quebec all the time. Permit for this, permit for that. Permit to cut hair, permit to sell hot dogs. Permit to wipe your ass.

    Ask yourself, cui bono?

    Not you liberals, we know how pathetic you are on this stuff.

  • Guy Incognito||

    I knew about this from passing references in various Parker bios. Sad stuff.

    I can't compare with the past, but NYC today seems a lot like a museum piece, frankly. It thrives as a self-referential monument to its own Past Greatness but does not produce any art with real originality or cultural longevity. When I lived there a few years back I had trouble finding a place to order take-out food at 4am in mid-Manhattan. The cops are outta control. "The City That Never Sleeps" is all sleepy and touristy now.

  • ChrisO||

    Are you saying all those hipster fucks in Brooklyn aren't producing Great Art? How dare you!

  • Tablet pc||

    This is a good story, i like it

  • شات عراقنا||

    Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world
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  • sodagrrl||

    I hate to be the only one to note that the "check-reign" is actually a "check-REIN."

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