Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen writes about music for the New York Times and JazzTimes. For each of the last six years, he has received the Helen Dance-Robert Palmer Award for Excellence in Newspaper, Magazine or Online Feature or Review Writing.



"Nice Work: Jazz Agency and the New York City Cabaret Card, 1943-1967"

When you live in New York City
You know that times are usually hard
When you live in New York City
You know that times are usually hard

To make a bad situation awful
I had to go lose my cabaret card.

Mose Allison, always a chap to cut the heart of the matter when singing the blues, once presented this hangdog scenario in a tune called “Cabaret Card.” The song’s titular affliction was a New York City law, introduced during Prohibition but deviously expanded in 1943, that required all workers in nightclubs to carry a special identification card. No card, no gig — and because enforcement of the law was notoriously mercurial, targeting some musicians but not others, the result was an undertone of paranoia on the New York jazz scene, during an age now regarded as fairly golden.

Is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you? This is the story of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Heath, J.J. Johnson and many others, and the concrete ways in which race and narcotics were prosecuted in the Naked City. It’s about the law’s slippery influence on the sound of jazz in New York (and thus everywhere), and what otherwise might have come to pass. It’s about the Card as a force unseen but deeply felt, looming larger than its marginal profile in the jazz-historical record might suggest.

Because it’s also about city politics, we’ll touch briefly on the actual legislation — but as painlessly as possible, with cameos by Lord Buckley, Lenny Bruce, Frank Sinatra and Doc Humes. And of course, by Councilman Joseph F. Ruggieri, the Brooklyn Democrat who cast the lone vote against repeal, protesting that “the people of this city would feel a little easier if they knew that performers had been OK’d as people of good character.”

My Speakers Sessions

Saturday, March 24

4:00pm EDT