New York City has finally repealed its 91 year old, Jazz Age Cabaret law. The fight over the 23 skidoo goes on, vodeodo‘s specter infiltrates unchecked across the “isle of Manhatto” in its subtle wiles, but the Charleston is now free to come up from Charleston.

The same gag applies to government’s failure in adaptivity always, explaining everything from the Soviet Five Year Plans to the NYC Board of Education use of an education model unchanged for a century (in that time, American capitalism has gone through several whole phases, which left only one company, General Electric, on the Fortune 500 list for that same century).

One would say better late than never, if not for the near-complete death of non-established live jazz in Manhattan that the law inflicted. The last poor person’s jazz club that I went to, Saint Nick’s in Harlem, in the marrow of jazz’s bones, closed up several years ago. So, jazz dies in its heart, yet the city will take tax money from jazz musicians to subsidize the city’s definition of musical art, after spending a CENTURY retarding, with its Cabaret laws, America’s own internationally regarded high art.

Cabaret laws were used to stifle the careers America’s Mozart and Beethoven: Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

When they pulled Bird’s Cabaret card he was reduced to gigging around the Saratoga race track, playing his cosmic Bop for the pensioner pony punters. His card was revoked over a heroin arrest, messing up his livelihood, taking food out of his kid’s mouths, for his own betterment.

God only knows if the jazz art was helped or harmed when restricting Thelonius Monk’s card confined him to his apartment with his piano. His ma knew he was exceptional when she named him “Sphere,” so rules are hard to figure with Monk (“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”). They named a street after him after he died, but long before they revoked the Cabaret law that vexed him.

The law might have cost Billie Holiday stellar fame (same old story: Messed Up for Own Betterment, henceforth abbreviated “MUFOB”).

Frank Sinatra, born and raised just across the Hudson, would not play New York City, refusing the indignity of the “mug shot”required for his license.

Miles Davis was punched out by a cop in front of a venue he was headlining and was refused his Cabaret card because of the railroad arrest that ensued (Not because his punch-out would have messed up his Cabaret card mug shot).

America’s Bach, Louis Armstrong, was nearly destroyed by the gangsterism surrounding America’s alcohol prohibition whimsies (Al Capone saved him). That, at least, is the fault of the Federal government. But most importantly, the damage of the law was contained by repeal when the jazz age was still a thing. The continuance of the NYC law as a miracle of ossified failure to adapt is outrageous enough in and of itself, without being such a good metaphor for government’s failure to adapt overall.

In writing about icons, those who scratched on fame’s door and could not gain entry are left out. They are the real casualties of the law. With the number of venues restricted, restricted opportunity must follow. God only knows how many folks working as carpenters and electricians could have enriched my ears had they been given the solution space to rise. You shouldn’t need to be genius to ply your trade. Progressives are fond of using the argument of poverty barriers as the poor’s failure to rise, yet are silent on extending the concept for the arts and small business.

Here is New York City’s own link for what it would take to get a Cabaret license. And their caprice can derail your application train any time, for any reason (“pssst, hey buddy, expensive lawyers will be more than happy to help you with that”). Most “westerners” would say we should be free to trade with reasonable restrictions, and if that was a true fact on the ground I’d have little cause to scribble. But the cabaret license case illustrates how reasonable and government regulations rarely go together. That this process took a century should disabuse people of the notion (and this is the same process people want to be used to determine whether their headache should warrant a head CAT scan?).

As long as we are mandating things, let’s mandate reasonability. If the burdens of a complex and expensive process are on the people, who is sovereign, and who is supplicant? In a society of law, the complexity of the law should not be a barrier to follow the law. As long as we are mandating things, lets mandate all regulations be navigable by people with the average reading comprehension of the government mandated schools, for starters.

What is reasonable about the authorities failing to take notice of a dearth of dance-related sinful outbreaks in places unaffected by Cabaret laws? The Devil of dance presides only in New York City that he needs our unique countermeasure? I wouldn’t put the idea past a lot of the Southerners in my family, it’s given me pause more than once.

This line of logic applies to local liquor laws just as well: it is now hard science that alcoholism is a genetic disorder affecting a remarkably stable population. Yet we have thousands of different local liquor laws. Should we not, then, have seen thousands of different effects on the disease of alcoholism? These sorts of laws make about as much sense as NYC having our own law against polio.

The City Council used the occasion of the law’s repeal to trumpet a “defense against racism”. It is quite true that he law had been disproportionately used to discriminate against “others” and “out-groups,” and the same snarky, weak hand-clapping, better-late-than-never resignation in accepting the glacial pace of government adaptability applies. The Stonewall bar uprising is a widely accepted symbol of gays asserting their well-deserved civil rights. But it was the Cabaret and liquor license laws that facilitated preying on them as an “out group”. Gays were given criminal records, those with criminal records could not get Cabaret, or liquor licenses, so they were exposed to police shakedowns.

But the fact is that most “quality of life” kinds of laws are used this same way to this very day. Or to say it more accurately: this is the effect of these laws today. “Quality of life” laws only seem to affect places mired in poverty. Marijuana laws only really affects people of color living there (or had done in NYC before the recent reforms to the laws which were, again , quite literally, a Beatnik-era understanding of the risks of marijuana). And the same way few can afford the lawyers needed for wending through the process of their Cabaret law license, that quality of life offenders rarely have lawyers. Same gag, different class.

It would be interesting to ask a poll: who are the greater threats to the quality of life of the city: “out-groups;” jazz musicians; lawyers or city bureaucrats?

What is most objectionable: the laws effect (discrimination), its intent (discrimination), its role in stifling New York City’s most true and local art, its lack of adaptability, or its century-long duration?

If New York City’s cultural development seems staid since the jazz age, that we had the height of our cultural development when there were no Cabaret Laws, or any Departments for the arts know this law, and the politicians who made it and used it, for a century, is much of the reason why.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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