Among the many curios in jazz’s epistolary record is a letter from Charlie Parker to the New York Liquor Control Board, dated Feb. 17, 1953. “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,” Parker writes. ” … I feel sure that when you examine my record and see that I have made a sincere effort to become a family man and a good citizen, you will reconsider. 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.”
Parker was referring of course to the status of his cabaret card, a license to work in city establishments serving alcohol-and thus, for a jazz musician trying to make ends meet at the time, probably the most crucial piece of identification in his or her possession. As you’re probably aware, the cabaret card could be revoked at the whim of the police, usually for narcotics infractions, however slight or untried. So it crops up regularly in jazz history, especially at midcentury, when that history was unfolding at breakneck speed. Parker was merely one of the card’s more expressive victims; its punitive restrictions also plagued Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, J.J. Johnson and Jackie McLean. A more comprehensive list could surely crowd the remainder of the page.
If the cabaret card seems from our present vantage like a nettlesome footnote in jazz lore, I’d argue that we’re underselling its influence, along with its larger implications. As an embodiment of the institutional distrust stirred up by jazz musicians, especially African-Americans, it’s a key to our understanding of the odds those musicians faced in civil society. The administration of the card, governed by a mysterious and often intransigent bureaucracy, more or less imposed the conditions of a police state in which music-making was cast as a privilege rather than a right. And because it kept some of jazz’s most important creative figures from active circulation in the music’s chief metropolitan hub, the cabaret card should be understood as an agent of historical disruption, its effects reaching not only lives and careers but also, by extension, the development of the art.
A cursory background of the legislation would note that New York cabaret licensing began as early as 1926, expanding in 1940 to make identification cards mandatory for entertainers, as part of a campaign to sanitize (and, by some accounts, deradicalize) the city’s nightlife. To get one of these cards, renewable every two years, a musician had to go to the police department’s license division to be photographed and fingerprinted-a process that by its nature could evoke the stigma of criminality.
Holiday, for one, lost her cabaret card after serving time for narcotics in 1947, near the height of her popularity; her comeback at Carnegie Hall the following year stood as a triumph. But the inability to play nightclubs was a blight even for someone of her stature. Insult was often added to injury. In one storied incident from the late ’50s, Holiday went to the Five Spot to lend support for her pianist, Mal Waldron, who was backing the poet Kenneth Koch. The club’s owner, Joe Termini, was hanging at the bar with an off-duty cop who recognized Lady Day. Asked to sing by Termini, she demurred, citing the police presence in the room, only to be informed that the police were behind the request. This reminder of the cruelly casual arbitration of the law would have a curious afterlife: It was apparently the same night Frank O’Hara describes in his poem “The Day Lady Died.”
Monk was an equally heartbreaking case. He first had his cabaret card revoked in 1948, after an arrest for marijuana possession; he lost it again in 1951, after a narcotics arrest with Bud Powell, and yet again in 1958, after an altercation with Delaware state troopers. Against a saga of chronic unemployability and financial hardship, he found the necessary workarounds: out-of-town bookings, where cabaret laws didn’t apply; unbilled gigs in the outer boroughs, where enforcement was lax; special arrangements like the one that yielded his 1959 concert at Town Hall.
There’s a silver lining here, in that much of this activity wouldn’t have happened without the cabaret card restrictions; even Monk’s legendary long-term run at the Five Spot with John Coltrane, starting in July of 1957, came about as a direct result. Another such example borders on dark comedy: At one point in 1960, unable again to work in New York, Monk took a booking at the Black Hawk club in San Francisco. With no steady drummer at the time, he poached Billy Higgins, who had just lost his cabaret card, from the Ornette Coleman Quartet. According to bassist Charlie Haden, this was what led to Ed Blackwell becoming the drummer in Coleman’s landmark band-and what freed Higgins up to initiate his historic run as a sideman on Blue Note Records.
But if we can recognize the upside of these contingencies, we have to acknowledge the cost. What opportunities were stymied by the cabaret card? How much sooner might Monk have found recognition, and what would the effect have been on his psyche? What if Miles Davis hadn’t lost his card in 1959, after being clubbed outside of Birdland: Might he have found more work for his sextet, fresh off the release of Kind of Blue? Think of the reputations that moldered, the engagements that never came to pass.
The cabaret law, as it pertained to musicians, finally met its end in 1967, after years of legal challenge, notably in cases involving Lord Buckley and Nina Simone. As for Parker and his letter, he was the rare musician whose appeal met with success, though it’s unclear whether this was cause and effect. (It’s just as possible that some midtown club owner, seeking to profit from his notoriety, worked his backroom connections.) Whatever the case, Parker’s plight was already underway. And while there’s no denying the clutch of his demons, who’s to say how much better he might have fared in a culture that didn’t legislate the execution of his art?