The Cabaret Card and Jazz. Nefarious nuisance or blessing in disguise?

From Jazz Times:

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.”

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