After years of efforts to repeal New York City’s outdated Cabaret Law, the City Council is on the verge of repeal. The New York Times reports today that After 91 Years, New York Will Let Its People Boogie. The “no dancing” law is set to be struck down with a new bill tomorrow according to a report. Councilman Rafael Espinal told the newspaper that he has the 26 votes needed to pass a repeal through City Council, as well as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approval. In 1926, while liquor was bootlegged and Jazz was shaking things up in Harlem, New York City instituted the Cabaret Law that required establishments serving food or drink to obtain a separate license before permitting any dancing or live music on their premises. This law successfully sought to police and restrict the interracial mixing happening in dance clubs uptown. Almost 100 years later, though times and racial attitudes have changed, the Cabaret Law is not only still in effect and enforced, but contemporary zoning regulations effectively make dancing illegal in large parts of the city.
Drafted by Brooklyn Council Member Rafael Espinal (D-37), first elected to the New York State Assembly at the age of 26 and currently in his first term as a council member, the bill will address a pernicious, racially motivated law that has followed “fringe” musical scenes in the city for nearly a century.
The Brooklyn Law School Library has in its collection Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City (Call No. PN2277.N5 C51 2005) by Paul Chevigny, an attorney and former civil rights activist, who recounts his efforts to repeal New York’s Cabaret Law. The book is also available as an e-book. Gigs provides a fascinating account of a unique victory for musicians against repressive entertainment licensing laws. It provides a much-needed study of the social, political, cultural and legal conditions surrounding a change in law and public attitudes toward vernacular music in New York City.