Righteous Dominion


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Facebook Post by Tim Callahan - Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus Story

Bird Monk MingusTo me and a lot of jazz fans, this is the greatest picture of in the history of the genre. You have the mercurial genius Thelonious Monk plunking away at his dissonant and percussive piano chords. Standing over him walking a thunderous bassline is the undisputed heavyweight champion of jazz bass, Charles Mingus. Behind Mingus was the young Roy Haynes, nicknamed "Snap Crackle", who was the hotshot drummer of the day. And, of course, with his signature heaving chest that exhaled urgent but deeply felt phrases through his oft-pawned alto saxophone is none other than Charlie "Bird" Parker, the greatest jazz musician that ever lived.

It’s September 13, 1953 and we are at the Open Door on West Third Street in Lower Manhattan. Roy Haynes would later remember the joint as a "dump".  Bird and Monk weren’t on the bill. But when the hip jazz folks got word that Mingus and Monk were coming in to jam with Roy Haynes, many had that gut feeling that Bird might just show, so they made the trip downtown. Some say Bird fanatic Jack Kerouac was in the crowd, but that’s most likely because he spent the rest of his short life telling everyone he had been. We owe this pic to one of those hipsters that tipped off photographer Bob Parent to get down there for this epic gig with his beloved Nikon.

But we are not here to talk about the setlist or the music they played that night. No known recordings exist.  The story is why it had to be such a mystery whether Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk had to sneak in there that night unannounced. This is because neither held a valid Cabaret Card. Back then in New York City, every musician had to carry a Cabaret Card in order to play in any establishment that served food or alcohol, which meant they couldn’t play anywhere at all, except Washington Square Park before dusk. If you lost your Cabaret Card, you lost your living in New York.

In this time where we are all thinking about how much Black Lives Matter, I want to point out an episode of American history that I have always considered one of the most fertile periods of musical development in human history. But the amazing part is how it did happen, despite the enormous obstacles these musicians faced due to systemic racism.

The Cabaret Card system had been in place since 1926 when outraged citizens were complaining of the terrible influence of this "wild negro" music on young people. People called it the devil’s music that could lead to vile degradation for its listeners who stayed up all hours bumping and jumping to this budding art form.  The City of New York implemented a law requiring all music venues that had music and dancing to have Cabaret Licenses and all performers Cabaret Cards. And they gave the authority over who could hold Cabaret Cards to the New York City Police Department.

To get a license to play live music in New York, a musician would have to go down to the police station, get fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed. If he had a prior record, his application was often spiked. Of course, if he had a few extra dollars he might be able to buy his way into a disputed card if need be, but that was not possible for most up and coming musicians. Once he got his card, the cops could pull it at any time.

The Cabaret Cards were granted and often revoked at will by the police. Jazz greats Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzie Gillespie, Jackie McLean, and others all had their Cabaret Cards revoked at various times for offenses both big and small by city cops.  In 1953, Bird was at the height of his powers, pushing ever further into the boundaries of bebop, a new high paced form of jazz characterized by complex harmonies and rhythms with light speed changes. Bird was the king of bebop, until they took away his Cabaret Card. And as everyone knew at the time, if you didn’t have a Cabaret Card, you didn’t eat.

Like many musicians, especially ones that had to wile away the hours in mob run jazz clubs, forced to wait in basements or alleyways for their turn to play (black folks weren’t allowed to sit with the white crowd while they waited), Bird became involved in drugs. After a bust, his card was revoked and he was forced to hit the road outside of New York, playing with lesser musicians that didn’t understand his new lightning fast complex setlist. Without his livelihood, Bird spiraled into depression.

Months before the gig at the Open Door, a cardless Charlie Parker wrote a heartfelt letter to the New York Liquor Control Board that pleaded: "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: 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…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. Yours truly, Charlie Parker." He didn’t receive a reply.

The great jazz soul singer Billie Holliday lost her card after a drug bust in 1947, but many suspect she was set up because she was stirring things up with her haunting ballad Strange Fruit that depicted lynchings in the South.  She went to jail for a year and lost her Card for a decade, ending her career, and her life. Monk lost his Card many times, but he was so talented, hardworking and sneaky (he often had to perform under aliases), that he could earn enough money to "buy back" his Card. "Tonight! Ernie Washington on Piano" (psst: it’s Monk!).

Of course, the Cabaret Card wasn’t the beginning or end of the discrimination black musicians faced in this era. There were hundreds of venues especially outside of New York that wouldn’t allow them to play at all due to the color of their skin. Many were forced to play background roles for less talented white musicians and enter venues through the backdoor or kitchen. Most had to stay in dive motels and eat at second rate restaurants when they traveled. Others were subjected to repeated beatings and harassment just for showing up to work. Witness the iconic 1959 photo of a bloody Miles Davis following a police beating during a smoke break outside of a club (where his name was on the marquee!). It’s even more remarkable that Miles simply dusted himself off and went down to finish Kind of Blue with John Coltrane, an album that would revolutionize jazz.

The discriminatory Cabaret Card system remained in place until white musicians started to arrive on the scene, some of whom supported their musical forbearers in this discriminatory system. Out of solidarity for his fellow musicians, the megastar white crooner Frank Sinatra refused to even apply for one and publicly shunned the NYC scene. When the NYPD learned he performed regularly on the "down low" at the Copacabana without a card, there was a huge crackdown. And once well-respected white musicians like Buell Neidlinger started losing their cards for minor infractions and stopped playing in the City, the card system began losing steam and one day simply disappeared, but by then it was too late. Charlie Parker was dead. So was Billie Holiday. 

So, we go back to that night in September 1953. Three of the greatest players of their respective instruments are blowing away to a glorious set we’ll never hear. But we’ll thank and revere them and those who came before and after ever more as we understand all they had to go through in order to do what they did that night.

Facebook Post on Legendary Musicians About the Miles Davis Story

MilesMiles Davis beaten by police and arrested while having a cigarette during a set break outside the club he was performing at.

"Remembering Miles Davis, and remembering the long history of black men being brutalized simply for being. For those don’t know the history, on August 25, 1959–eight days after the release of his "Kind of Blued album—Miles was performing at Birdland, recording an Armed Forces Day broadcast for Voice of America. In between sets he had escorted a friend out and put her in a cab and was relaxing in front on the club having a smoke. A police officer approached him and asked him to move on. Miles pointed to the marquee, explaining to the officer that he was performing inside and that it was his name on the marquee. Still the officer persisted, not caring who he was or what he was doing. While Miles was trying to explain to the police officer that he was making a mistake when a detective, drawn by the crowd that was starting gather, blindsided him and hit him in the head a few times with a billy club, drawing blood. He was then arrested and taken into custody, and after going to the hospital to get his head stitched up was charged with felonious assault on an officer."

Facebook Post by Joseph Haynes Davis About the Miles Davis Story


August 25, 1959. Eight days after the release of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis is beaten by police and arrested outside Birdland. Davis had just recorded a Voice of America broadcast — in other words, a broadcast for the armed forces — and was taking a break outside the club.

Miles was asked to "move on" while he was taking a break outside of the club, the famous "Birdland", in New York City. 

He was working there.  Taking a cigarette break.

According to Miles from his biography:

 "Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis," and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.

He said, "I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you."

A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head.

I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on. Then I remember [journalist] Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face — I had known Dorothy for years and I used to date her good friend, Jean Bock — and saying, "Miles, what happened?" I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet [the saxophonist] was there, too.

Attached are the infamous photos chronicling the excessive police actions illustrating the "presumption of correctness" despite the evidence of rogue actions.  You will also see my beloved late sister in law, the internationally renowned dancer and ballerina Frances Taylor trying to comfort Miles and clearly distraught at the sight of his condition.



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