(Page 2 of 2)
Parker did try to get his cabaret card back, writing a letter to the State Liquor Authority that read in part: “My right to pursue my chosen profession has been taken away, and my wife and three children who are innocent of any wrongdoing are suffering.…If by any chance you feel I haven’t paid my debt to society, by all means let me do so and give me and my family back the right to live.” Charlie’s wife Chan later recalled two detectives visiting Parker around this time and offering to reinstate his license in exchange for names of other scofflaws. By the time Parker’s card was reinstated in January 1953, his self-destructive tendencies were taking up more of his life, killing him in March 1955 at the young age of 34.
The rules governing cabaret cards were highly variable. While the standard was generally understood to be that a drug bust was a disqualifying offense, many musicians with drug arrests eventually found a way to get a card. Trumpeter Red Rodney would say, “Even though I had a police record I could pay twenty-five dollars and get one. It was a bribe. The inspector got the twenty-five dollars. It was a law allowing the police to put money in their pockets.” Among the top jazz musicians who had their cards stripped for drug charges were Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk, and Billy Higgins. The comedian Lenny Bruce was stripped of his card in 1964 not for a drug charge but for obscenity.
Particularly disturbing was the case of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose cabaret card was revoked after a 1947 drug arrest. In order to continue working, Holiday played Carnegie Hall and then opened a show on Broadway, underlining one of the greatest ironies of the law: Artists deemed unfit to perform in nightclubs could still play major theaters and concert halls.
Having made her reputation with intimate, dramatic performances in small venues such as Monette’s and Café Society, Holiday faced questions as to how her show would translate into larger venues. Despite good reviews, her stay on Broadway lasted just three weeks. Desperate to get back to club work, Holiday entered into a personal relationship with the notorious owner of Manhattan’s Ebony Club, John Levy. The quintessential slimy music business type, Levy offered to help get his new girlfriend’s cabaret card back with the understanding that she would perform exclusively at his club. Over the course of the next 18 months, Levy would serve as Holiday’s manager and abusive boyfriend.
In January 1949, narcotics officers raided the couple’s hotel room in San Francisco and found a small amount of opium. Levy quickly talked his way out of trouble and left Holiday to fend for herself. Fortunately, the charge was eventually thrown out. But upon returning to New York in May of that year she still had no cabaret card. Apparently Levy’s pull only extended far enough to get police to look the other way when Holiday performed at his club.
Holiday eventually ran away from Levy, sneaking away down a fire escape in late 1950. While she would continue to sing to adoring crowds throughout the world until her tragic early death from liver and heart disease in July 1959, Holiday never again performed in a New York City nightclub. A law that was supposed to disempower unscrupulous creeps like Levy had given him the power to turn a great artist into his personal slave and potential patsy.
The corruption of the cabaret card licensing process became a public controversy in 1960. On October 20, the comedian Lord Buckley was dramatically dragged off stage at the Jazz Gallery by plainclothes police officers for failing to disclose on his application two minor arrests from the 1940s. A few weeks later, Buckley would perform for free at a Police Honor Legion dinner—a “first step” in getting his card back. There it was intimated that he could be reinstated for “not less than one hundred,” according to a later account by his manager, Paris Review founder Harold “Doc” Humes. Buckley would die two days later, November 12, 1960. While accounts of his last days vary greatly, it is generally agreed that he was in a manic state, brought on by what Humes called “the exquisite Chinese torture that passes for the standard operating procedure of the Police Cabaret Bureau.”
Buckley’s death would receive national attention and within days a committee comprised mainly of writers and editors petitioned the governor to investigate the New York City Police Department. On November 17, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller called for an internal investigation. What followed reads like something from a dystopian novel, complete with suspicious traffic stops and a 1,000-officer sweep of cabarets, justified by Police Commissioner Stephen Kennedy as an effort to prevent “rendezvous” between “criminals and persons of questionable character.”
Public outcry and media coverage became unbearable, and in January 1961 cabaret licensing was transferred back from the police to the Bureau of Licensing. In August 1966, Mayor John Lindsay ordered the fingerprinting stopped, and a city council bill to do away with the cabaret entertainer license altogether passed the following year.
While performers no longer had to contend with the cabaret card, clubs and restaurants still chafed under numerous licensing and zoning restrictions. Until a 1988 court ruling, the city even regulated the instrumentation that could be used in a club. Up until then, establishments wishing to have brass, woodwind, or percussion instruments had to apply for a special license. And even today, portions of the cabaret law live on, limiting the number of establishments with dancing, and regulating the hours that particular clubs can be open. In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested he was open to revisiting and potentially repealing these laws, but so far nothing has changed.
Tyrannical regimes always harass artists. But as the members of the punk group Pussy Riot sit in a Russian jail, it’s worth remembering that the repression of art is not exclusively the province of faceless megastates. Local zoning and licensing regulations can also have a serious impact on expression. Residents in New Orleans are learning this first hand as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has begun applying the check-reign to some of the city’s most vital economic and cultural institutions, cracking down on long-established music venues for noise and licensing violations, and even requiring permits for the street vendors who for generations have provided refreshments for parade revelers.
The story of the cabaret card should serve as a cautionary tale. The regulation of art in the name of the public good deprives the public of the fruits of its best and brightest, gives unearned profits to local power structures, and deprives artists of not just the ability to make a living but their right to pursue a fulfilling life.