A Crash Course in Cabarets


1926 The cabaret law is created to crack down on multiracial Harlem jazz clubs. “Most of the jazz in 1926 was being played in clubs in Harlem where there were mixed groups. And a lot of people considered jazz to be a mongrelized, degenerate music,” says Paul Chevigny, author of Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City. The law defines a cabaret as “any room, place or space in the city in which any musical entertainment, singing, dancing or other form of amusement is permitted in connection with . . . selling to the public food or drink, except eating or drinking places, which provide incidental musical entertainment, without dancing, either by mechanical devices, or by not more than three persons.” In other words, a venue can’t have dancing without a license.

1961 The law requires that cabarets only be permitted in manufacturing and commercial zones like the meatpacking district.

1967 The law is amended to remove the requirement that musicians playing in clubs “be of good character.”

1978 The law requires that sprinkler systems be installed in clubs seating more than 75 people.

1986 Chevigny wins a case on behalf of the musicians’ union (Chiasson v. New York City Department of Consumer Affairs). State Supreme Court Justice David Saxe strikes the three-musician limitation, which he says “nearly eliminated certain types of music, such as Dixieland and bluegrass music [and] also had a negative impact on jazz.”

1989 The city tightens zoning restrictions as commercial zones become gentrified. With the exception of grandfathered spaces, areas that were previously considered as-of-right—Tribeca, Soho, and the flatiron district—are judged to be off-limits for cabarets.

2002 While there are 4811 liquor licenses in Manhattan, only 276 are licensed cabarets—down from 12,000 in 1961—with an additional 40 venues up for renewal.

Return to “The Safety Dance: You Can’t Dance If You Want To” by Tricia Romano