The Creative Life of Law: Improvisation, Between Tradition and Suspicion

Sara L Ramshaw


Originally applying solely to chefs, waiters, dishwashers and the like, New York City (NYC) regulations governing cabaret employees were altered in 1943 to include musicians and entertainers, who until the late 1960’s would be required to hold a NYC Cabaret Employee’s Identification Card. The introduction of these notorious “police cards” occurred roughly contemporaneously to the emergence in after-hours night clubs in Harlem of a new and supposedly “wild”, improvisatory brand of jazz: bebop. This article adds to the many rather practical theories on why these cards were introduced a more abstract discussion coined in terms of the relationship between suspicion and tradition and focusing on differing essences of law and improvisatory jazz. While law breathes tradition and is suspicious of improvisation and unpredictability, the converse is true of jazz. Allusion to tradition in jazz improvisation is often viewed as a betrayal of its creative and spontaneous nature. And yet it is only through its departure from the stable transmission of past meaning that improvisation gains meaning. Law, in contrast, while appearing to be entirely composed of tradition, to transmit some sort of determinate and fixed meaning, is constantly betraying itself. As no two legal actions can be exactly the same, judges must improvise on tradition and past precedent every time they are asked to decide a case. Law can thus neither dispense with nor be completely determined by tradition. The legal decision instead lies on the border between what it “is” and what it otherwise could be and every judicial act is, in some sense, a species of improvisation. This article uses the cabaret cards to explore this uncertain terrain between law and improvisation, between tradition and suspicion.


Improvisation; Law and Justice; Jazz History; New York City Cabaret Laws, New York City “Police Cards”; Tradition; Suspicion

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
ISSN: 1712-0624