The Charlie Parker Quintet (L-R): Tommy Potter, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Duke Jordan
Photo: William Gottlieb/Redferns/Getty Images
How The Police Used The Cabaret Card Law To Discriminate Against Black Jazz Artists And Musicians
In the midst of the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, specifically against Black people and people of color, the music and entertainment worlds are taking stock of the inherent, decades-long racism baked into their cores. To understand just how we got to where we are today, it's important to trace some of the racist laws and practices that have contributed to create an industry afflicted with racial inequality.
One such law, in place from 1940 to 1967, impacted the jazz world in New York City, then predominantly composed of Black musicians and artists, for decades, changing the course of jazz history and directly affecting some of the genre's giants like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and many others.
Introduced in New York City in 1940, the cabaret card was a form of identification required for all musicians and entertainers to work in a nightclub or similar establishments where alcohol was served, the primary venues jazz musicians relied upon to make a living. The cabaret card was an extension of the New York City Cabaret Law, a law instituted in 1926, during the Prohibition era in the U.S., that banned dancing across the majority of the city's bars and clubs. (The law, itself criticized for targeting largely Black jazz clubs and denounced by opponents as having racist origins, was ultimately repealed in 2017.)
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) administered the cabaret cards, requiring people to go to a police station to get photographed, finger-printed and interviewed in order to receive their permits. They also held the power to revoke the cards, an authority the police would regularly enact on jazz musicians at their whim over things like narcotics charges.
"For musicians, the fates of their careers now lay in the hands of the police," GRAMMY-winning jazz bassist Christian McBride explains in a video short (watch above) from NPR Music's "Jazz Night In America" series, which he hosts.
The introduction of the cabaret card was part of an attempt to "sanitize" New York City's nightlife, Nate Chinen, the award-winning jazz music writer and critic and director of editorial content at New York City jazz public radio station WBGO, writes. In his 2012 feature for JazzTimes on the history and impact of the cabaret card on jazz, Chinen spoke about the cultural and musical implications of the law.
"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," he said of the cabaret card. "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."
Many Black jazz musicians of the time lost their cabaret cards during the law's nearly 30-year run. In 1947, Billie Holiday had her cabaret card revoked following a drug arrest. Even after serving a year in jail, police refused to reinstate her card, which prevented her from performing in nightclubs for more than a decade. After having his cabaret card revoked three times between 1948 and 1958, Thelonious Monk, facing "chronic unemployability and financial hardship," Chinen writes, was forced to perform out of town in cities without cabaret laws or unbilled within the outskirts of NYC boroughs or even under an alias, Ernie Washington.
While the cabaret card law, which was ultimately abolished in 1967, did create scenarios for ousted jazz musicians to meet and collaborate, its strict restrictions may have impeded the growth of both the genre and its greatest artists.
"What opportunities were stymied by the cabaret card?" Chinen wonders. "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."