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The Cabaret Card and Jazz

Nefarious nuisance or blessing in disguise?

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.

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