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.
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.