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Opening Arguments

Swing and a miss

Fascinating and a little sad -- How Federal Tax Law Killed the Swing Era and Spawned Bebop:

In 1944, a new wartime cabaret tax went into effect, imposing a ruinous 30% (later merely a destructive 20%) excise on all receipts at any venue that served food or drink and allowed dancing. ... [I]n the next few years, struggling nightclub owners were trying every which way to avoid having to foist the tax on customers.

The tax-law regulation's ... exception had the biggest impact. Clubs that provided strictly instrumental music to which no one danced were exempt from the cabaret tax. It is no coincidence that in the back half of the 1940s a new and undanceable jazz performed primarily by small instrumental groups—bebop—emerged as the music of the moment.

"The spotlight was on instrumentalists because of the prohibitive entertainment taxes," the great bebop drummer Max Roach was quoted in jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's memoirs, "To Be or Not to Bop." "You couldn't have a big band because the big band played for dancing."

The federal excise tax inadvertently spurred the bebop revolution: "If somebody got up to dance, there would be 20% more tax on the dollar. If someone got up there and sang a song, it would be 20% more," Roach said. "It was a wonderful period for the development of the instrumentalist." ...

Such is the power of government to destroy. Swing would probably have died out eventually anyway -- musical tastes are always changing -- but the cabaret tax surely hastened its demise. That's going on today, too. Coal, for instance, would have eventually given way to natural gas as the dominant source of electricity. But the Obama administration is killing the industry off early with its increasingly tough environmental standards.

Always wondered why the big bands seemed to go away so suddenly. Love the sound.

(From The Wall Strett Journal via TaxProf Blog)


Rebecca Mallory
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 9:34am

I read the article in yesterday's WSJ and hoped that it would help people get beyond what Thomas Sowell calls Stage One Thinking about taxes.

Taxes have unforeseen consequences that are beyond the immediate effect of budgets.  In a low-information political world ,   the consequences are a difficult message to get out to the voters

Tim Zank
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 10:21am

I can't for the life of me understand how something so simple, so obvious happens so often (over and over again) with taxes. It's patently obvious and provable when you tax something, immediately people alter what they are doing to avoid it. It's like "whack a mole" for lack of a better description...

Yet we do it over and over, are we really that stupid? I know, I know, rhetorical question..