Louis Armstrong and Marijuana
Though his name is synonymous with jazz, Louis Armstrong and marijuana have a lengthy, and healthy, relationship.
Louis Armstrong is often remembered as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. While others have developed and elevated the art form in different and unique directions, it is undeniable that Armstrong brought his own brand of soul to this then-emerging art form. He broke boundaries as one of the first African-American celebrities to receive near-universal acclaim for his talents.
He also loved pot.
While many may not realize this, jazz legend Louis Armstrong really loved his marijuana, and frequently brought it up in both his music and daily conversations. He had connections to famous marijuana dealers, as well as, for awhile, spoke out against it being made illegal. Louis Armstrong and pot go together like any number of lame cliches that come to mind... only this was far from lame.
Louis Armstrong first tried marijuana in the early 1920s. He had already learned how to play the cornet after a brief prison stint for juvenile delinquency, and, as such, was already well on his way to becoming the great musician we all remember. Having jitters before his performance, someone offered him "some gage."
Gage, of course, was a then-popular term for marijuana.
“That was our cute little nickname for marijuana…We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”
Louis Armstrong told that to biographer Max Jones.
He took cannabis as a way to self-medicate anxiety. To take the edge off. In short, the same reason most people smoke marijuana.
Another nickname for cannabis? "Muggles." Ever wonder why Louis Armstrong has a song named after the nonmagical folk of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series? Well, he doesn't. It's about pot.
While marijuana is now seen as an illegal – albeit, mostly harmless – drug, in the 20s and 30s, people genuinely believed that, if you smoked marijuana, you would become a schizophrenic mass murderer who would go around killing people. Ever see Reefer Madness? While it's ridiculous to us now, remember... people believed this stuff was real.
And, in particular, they believed that marijuana was something that inner city people did. It was a sign of prejudice and racism. In short, if you asked a typical white authority figure at the time about marijuana, they may inform you that "Only the violent blacks and illegals did pot."
Combine that with the anti-jazz sentiments running around at the time, and it seems inevitable that an officer would arrest Louis Armstrong for smoking a joint... which happened in November 1930, when Armstrong and his drummer V.C. Berton smoked a joint outside the Culver City, California's Cotton Club.
However, Armstrong smoking pot was only part of the story. The officers approached Armstrong and Berton only after a rival bandleader called them on Armstrong to "get rid of him."
However, as it turns out, the detectives who arrested Armstrong were fans of his, and gave him a minimal sentence as a result of him being Louis Armstrong.
Nixon and Armstrong
When you think of marijuana, you probably think of Nixon as that asshole who called the cops on your party. But, for Armstrong... well, there's a story told so often that it might even be true.
In 1953, Armstrong returned from a trip abroad as a cultural ambassador (a massive jazz tour), and ran into then-Vice President Nixon at the airport. Armstrong was going to go through customs with suitcase, but Nixon, trying to impress the jazz legend, told him that "Ambassadors don't go through customs!" and sped him through so he wouldn't waste his time, taking Armstrong's suitcase through the express lane, so to speak.
Turns out, had customs gone through Armstrong's suitcase, they would have found three pounds of cannabis in there.
So yes, the man who started the War on Drugs... smuggled pot. For Louis Armstrong.
The Price is Too High
In 1954, Louis Armstrong's wife, Lucille, was arrested for possession of cannabis. She had been found with over 14 grams of pot on her person that many believe may have belonged to Armstrong.
Biographies about Armstrong often left out his cannabis habit, much to the now-senior jazz legend's disgruntlement. Despite hosting a desire to write about his relationship with pot, he only found a chance to do so toward the end of his life in 1971, months before he eventually passed. Speaking to biographer Max Jones, Louis Armstrong revealed that the legal consequences for marijuana consumption had become too great to make smoking worth it anymore.
“As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope. But with all the riggamaroo going on, no one can do anything about it. After all, the vipers during my heydays are way up there in age – too old to suffer those drastic penalties. So we had to put it down. But if we all get as old as Methuselah our memories will always be lots of beauty and warmth from gage.”