If you’ve ever been ID’ed while buying alcohol or going into a bar, you know the routine. But imagine getting carded on your way to work. That’s exactly what jazz musicians in New York had to go through under a law that changed the course of jazz history – the cabaret card.
The Cabaret Card: A License to Perform
Cabaret cards were a special form of identification required to perform in any establishment that served food or alcohol alongside entertainment. In other words, almost every jazz club in New York. These cards were granted and revoked by the New York Police Department at their discretion, and even the biggest jazz icons of the time lost their cards at some point.
One such musician was Charlie Parker, an influential figure in the jazz scene. He co-authored the bebop style of jazz and was headlining shows and working with renowned artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. However, in 1951, his cabaret card was revoked due to a narcotics charge, leaving him out of work for over a year.
The Devastating Impact on Jazz Musicians
For jazz musicians in New York, playing the club circuit was crucial for their livelihood. Without the cabaret card, they couldn’t perform in the city and struggled to find work elsewhere. This led to Parker leaving his family behind and touring small towns across the U.S., playing with lesser rhythm sections who were not familiar with his music.
The loss of the cabaret card had a profound impact on musicians like Parker. It exacerbated their substance abuse problems and pushed them into deeper depressive states. Parker even wrote a heartfelt letter to the New York State Liquor Control Board, pleading for the reinstatement of his card, emphasizing how his livelihood and his family’s well-being were at stake.
The Racist Origins of the Cabaret Card System
The cabaret card system had its roots in racist and discriminatory practices. In the 1920s, when Prohibition was in effect, jazz clubs were some of the few places where different races mixed socially. However, jazz was viewed as a “counterculture negro racket” associated with debauchery and was considered a danger to the general public.
To impose order, the New York Board of Alderman passed a law in 1926 that imposed a 3 a.m. curfew and made dancing illegal in clubs without a special cabaret license. Most of the clubs affected by this law were jazz clubs that stayed open until dawn. Subsequently, the licensing authority was given to the New York Police Department, who decided who was of “good character” to work in the nightlife scene.
The Power of the Cabaret Card
Obtaining a cabaret card was a complex process that involved being photographed, fingerprinted, and interviewed at the police station. Any prior record could lead to denial, and appealing the decision was expensive and often futile for many musicians. Even those who managed to get a card could have it revoked for any run-in with the police.
Prominent musicians like Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk experienced the loss of their cabaret cards due to drug charges. Holiday’s card was taken away after a drug arrest in 1947, possibly as a result of her singing the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” to white audiences. Monk lost his card three times, often due to drug charges or racial profiling.
The impact of losing their cabaret cards was devastating for these musicians. They had to gig outside the city, use aliases, or stop playing altogether. It was a clear instrument of discrimination that restricted their ability to make a living from their craft.
The Turning Point and the End of Cabaret Cards
In 1960, the comedian Lord Buckley was dragged offstage during a performance due to minor arrests he failed to cite on his cabaret card application. This incident, along with the refusal of Frank Sinatra to apply for a card in protest, sparked outrage among the arts community. A massive police investigation revealed unlicensed workers in popular clubs, but no substantial evidence of corruption was found.
However, this scrutiny led to the eventual overturning of the cabaret card system in 1967. This marked a major turning point for jazz musicians, but for many like Charlie Parker, it came too late. Parker finally got his card back in 1953 but passed away just two years later at the age of 34.
What Could Have Been
The loss of cabaret cards had a profound impact on jazz history. It separated musicians, limited collaborations, and changed the course of music. If not for the cabaret card system, Charlie Parker might have had a longer and more stable career. The collaborations between Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk could have been even more transformative.
In a system designed to purify New York’s nightlife scene, the power of a small piece of cardstock changed the trajectory of jazz forever.
If you’re interested in learning more about the impact of the cabaret card system and the stories of jazz musicians, visit Losing Weight | Healthy Weight, Nutrition, and Physical for more enlightening articles. Let’s celebrate the resilience and creativity of these incredible artists who overcame immense challenges in pursuit of their passion.