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Ed Driscoll

Prison for Smokers, Permits for Strippers!

January 31st, 2013 - 12:30 pm
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No smoke for you — FOR ONE YEAR!

Reason TV’s Nanny of the Month for January is Oregon Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), who simultaneously argues for prison reform to fight overcrowding — and calls for doctors’ prescriptions for tobacco, including cigars, and prison sentences of up to a year for smokers who violate his proposed edict:

Our nation’s nannies, scolds, and buttinskies started 2013 with a renewed hunger to mind other people’s business.

One Florida city has banned dog tethering (even on your own property!) and a Texas State Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) wants to license strippers in order to dissuade women from going into that line of work (hey, at least the guy admits that the purpose of occupational licensing is to make it harder for people to do their jobs).

But 2013′s first nod goes to the northwest nag whose new bill, if passed, would expand the drug war by categorizing cigarettes as a Schedule III controlled substance (along with LSD). You’d need a doctor’s prescription to get your mitts on tobacco products (including cigars), and if you disobey, you could be looking at a fine of $6,250, up to a year in prison, or both!

For reminding us of how far we’ve come since restaurant smoking bans, the January 2013 Nanny of the Month goes to Oregon Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland)!

Incidentally, for those who watched the first season of Mad Men and think of New York in the 1950s as a libertarian paradise,  the main Reason Website has an interesting article written by music professor Chris Kjorness on New York City’s cabaret laws of the time: “Show Me Your License, Daddy-O — How New York City tried to regulate bebop to death:”

In a 1951 Ebony article, Cab Calloway, a king of the 1930s jazz world, decried the widespread drug use in the current jazz scene. Though Calloway didn’t single anyone out by name, the magazine illustrated his essay with photos of bebop musicians, and the publication coincided with an upswing in police enforcement. One musician snared in this crackdown was Charlie Parker.

Bird’s cabaret card was taken away in 1951 after a judge handed him a three-month suspended sentence, presumably for possession of heroin. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Parker’s art. Having been one of the founding fathers of bebop, Parker spent the late ’40s experimenting with producer Norman Granz, and in 1950 he cut his first record with Machito. While there had always been interest in the integration of Latin American rhythms into jazz, the critical mass of Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in New York City after World War II was creating an explosive new type of music. Sadly, Parker’s experimentation was cut short.

What followed instead was a series of one-nighters from Framingham to Altadena. Lon Flanigan Jr., an audience member at one of Parker’s 1952 gigs at the Times Square Hotel in Rochester, recalled the local pianist on the gig playing the jazz standard “Honeysuckle Rose” in “a style that could not be classified as jazz of any type by any stretch of the imagination.” While Parker had a reputation for transcending poor rhythm sections, there is no question that playing with lesser bassists, drummers, and piano players inhibited his performances. More importantly, Parker was an artist who thrived on challenge and competition. Being sent out on the road to play with musicians who had not caught up with the music he invented 10 years earlier only accelerated a downward personal spiral of addiction, erratic behavior, and cirrhosis.

Parker did try to get his cabaret card back, writing a letter to the State Liquor Authority that read in part: “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.” Charlie’s wife Chan later recalled two detectives visiting Parker around this time and offering to reinstate his license in exchange for names of other scofflaws. By the time Parker’s card was reinstated in January 1953, his self-destructive tendencies were taking up more of his life, killing him in March 1955 at the young age of 34.

The rules governing cabaret cards were highly variable. While the standard was generally understood to be that a drug bust was a disqualifying offense, many musicians with drug arrests eventually found a way to get a card. Trumpeter Red Rodney would say, “Even though I had a police record I could pay twenty-five dollars and get one. It was a bribe. The inspector got the twenty-five dollars. It was a law allowing the police to put money in their pockets.” Among the top jazz musicians who had their cards stripped for drug charges were Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk, and Billy Higgins. The comedian Lenny Bruce was stripped of his card in 1964 not for a drug charge but for obscenity.

Particularly disturbing was the case of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose cabaret card was revoked after a 1947 drug arrest. In order to continue working, Holiday played Carnegie Hall and then opened a show on Broadway, underlining one of the greatest ironies of the law: Artists deemed unfit to perform in nightclubs could still play major theaters and concert halls.

Well worth a read.

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