“How the Taxman Cleared the Dance Floor”, by Eric Felten (Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra):
These are strange days, when we are told both that tax incentives can transform technologies yet higher taxes will not drag down the economy. So which is it? Do taxes change behavior or not? Of course they do, but often in ways that policy hands never anticipate, let alone intend. Consider, for example, how federal taxes hobbled Swing music and gave birth to bebop.
With millions of young men coming home from World War II—eager to trade their combat boots for dancing shoes—the postwar years should have been a boom time for the big bands that had been so wildly popular since the 1930s. Yet by 1946 many of the top orchestras—including those of Benny Goodman, Harry James and Tommy Dorsey—had disbanded. Some big names found ways to get going again, but the journeyman bands weren’t so lucky. By 1949, the hotel dine-and-dance-room trade was a third of what it had been three years earlier. The Swing Era was over.
Dramatic shifts in popular culture are usually assumed to result from naturally occurring forces such as changing tastes (did people get sick of hearing “In the Mood”?) or demographics (were all those new parents of the postwar baby boom at home with junior instead of out on a dance floor?). But the big bands didn’t just stumble and fall behind the times. They were pushed.
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.” …
The cabaret tax dropped to 10% in 1960 and was finally eliminated in 1965. By then, the Swing Era ballrooms and other “terperies” were long gone, and public dancing was done in front of stages where young men wielded electric guitars.
Thanks to a ‘cabaret tax,’ millions of Americans said goodbye to Swing Music. A lot fewer said hello to bebop.