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.