About a month ago, the city of New York repealed its cabaret law, which banned dancing in any place that didn’t have a license. It was enacted in 1926, a year after the Charleston craze swept the speakeasies of Harlem, and was enforced mainly to suppress gatherings that police found undesirable. Not surprisingly, the New York City Cabaret Law made an indelible mark on music history.
The effects of the law were far-reaching. Licenses were expensive and hard to get; other than in about 100 legal New York cabarets, a club faced fines if a patron decided to get up and dance. And they were only allowed a maximum of three musicians.
It wasn’t just establishments that were targeted, either. Musicians needed a Cabaret license to play clubs. This meant having a clean police record, which can be problematic; some of the greatest luminaries of jazz - Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday - went through periods of not being able to gig in their own town. It also meant being fingerprinted; for years, Frank Sinatra refused to play New York City because he wouldn’t suffer the indignity. Even the musical instruments themselves were discriminated against. Piano, organ, accordion and stringed instruments were legal, but, in an overt diss against jazz, drums and horns were banned.
Musical styles have been affected as people found ways to work within or around the law. The city fostered a legacy of jazz in the form of piano-bass or guitar-bass duos. At the other end of the spectrum, raves in illicit warehouse spaces were the birthplace of extreme EDM styles like Acid House.
But this has all become music history as New Yorkers start dancing in the open.
Cafe Society in Greenwich Village was “the first racially integrated nightclub in the United States”.
Thelonious Monk, “In Walked Bud,” Thelonious In Action, (1958)
Recorded live at The Five Spot in New York City - they got their cabaret license in 1956. A hangout for artists like Willem de Kooning and writers like Alan Ginsberg. Furious tenor solo by Johnny Griffin.
Gene Bertoncini and Michael Moore, “Cherokee,” Two In Time, (1989)
Example of how jazz players got around the “three-musician rule.” Duo of nylon-string guitar and acoustic bass; no laws broken here.
Fania All-Stars, “Descarga Fania,” Live at the Cheetah, (1971)
The Cheetah was a huge Discotheque in NYC, presumably with a Cabaret License. Recognized as the birthplace of New York Salsa (an umbrella term).
Danny Tenaglia, “Bottom Heavy,” Hard and Soul, (1995)
Example of “tribal house” music from NYC rave scene.