High Society: Jazz giant Louis Armstrong loved “that good shit”

“It really puzzles me to see marijuana connected with narcotics, dope and all of that stuff,” he once said.

Louis-Armstrong-High-Society

Louis Armstrong circa 1953.

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Welcome to High Society, a new regular feature in which CannCentral will turn the spotlight on the movers and shakers of history or pop culture—with a special emphasis on their relationship with our favourite herb. We kick off, appropriately enough, with one of the stars of the classic Hollywood musical High Society

Long before J.K. Rowling used the term muggle to denote someone without magic abilities, muggles was a slang term for cannabis. In 1928 soon-to-be jazz icon Louis Armstrong recorded an instrumental by that name signposting his affection for said herb. Throughout his life Armstrong was known for using cannabis regularly and in 1930 became one of the first celebrities to be arrested for possession. 

“It really puzzles me to see marijuana connected with narcotics, dope and all of that stuff. It is a thousand times better than whiskey. It is an assistant and a friend.”

Marijuana, he once said, “relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you’re with another tea smoker, it makes you feel a special kinship.”

Over the course of a career spanning five decades as a highly influential vocalist, trumpet player, and composer, and later as a film actor, “Satchmo” recorded, performed, and starred alongside a definitive “who’s who” of American music and movie societies, including: Coleman Hawkins, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye, Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, and Paul Newman, to name but a few. 

Born in New Orleans in 1901, the gravelly-voiced Armstrong ended up discovering his aptitude for and love of music while in a juvenile detention centre where “me and music got married.  I do believe that my whole success goes back to that time I was arrested as a wayward boy at the age of thirteen. Because then I had to quit running around and began to learn something. Most of all, I began to learn music.”

He eventually landed in Chicago in the early 1920s as a member of various jazz orchestras, and his then wife Lil Hardin Armstrong encouraged him to become a solo artist. Already known as one of the first jazz musicians to be featured on extended solos rather than a bandleader or ensemble player, Armstrong’s career as a trumpet player, vocalist, and composer continued to blossom until, by the 1950s, he had become an international ambassador for jazz music.    

His career transitioned into motion pictures in the mid 1950s and ‘60s, with Armstrong eventually appearing in over a dozen Hollywood films usually playing a musician or bandleader.  In 1964 his recording of “Hello, Dolly!” made him the oldest performer (at age 62) to have a number one hit (knocking the Beatles off the top spot).

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Lobby card for High Society (1956), in which Armstrong starred alongside Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly.

Never known as an activist, cannabis or otherwise, Armstrong was nonetheless one of the first black entertainers to access the upper echelons of American society when this was less than the norm. 

Despite not being an outspoken advocate, for those in the know, Armstrong was associated with “gage” throughout his career, considering himself a “Viper”. He told biographer Max Jones, “We did call ourselves the Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected the gage. 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.” 

Armstrong’s fourth wife was also arrested for cannabis possession in Honolulu in 1954 when police found a joint and two roaches in her sunglasses case. She denied the case was hers at all at the time but it was understood that she was carrying for her husband. 

Armstrong’s distress over this incident prompted him to write to his manager, Joe Glaser, including the following comments about cannabis: “Mr. Glaser, you must see to it that I have special permission to smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want or I will just have to put this horn down, that’s all.

“I can gladly vouch for a nice, fat stick of gage, which relaxes my nerves, if I have any…I can’t afford to be…tense, fearing that any minute I’m going to be arrested, brought to jail for a silly little minor thing like marijuana.”

He also stated: “I just won’t carry on with such fear over nothing and I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus, and he wouldn’t dare. Because he feels the same way that I do about it.”

On the subject of others carrying for him, in the late 1950s upon Armstrong’s return from an international “Goodwill Ambassador” tour, no less than U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon (yes, the man later responsible for America’s “War on Drugs”) inadvertently ended up “muling” three pounds of Armstrong’s pot through a New York airport. The two men met by chance and Nixon, seeing Armstrong waiting in a customs line (sweating profusely, in fact), exclaimed: “Ambassadors don’t have to go through customs and the Vice President of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you”.  

When Nixon was told what happened by Charles McWhorter, who served as his travelling aide (and who heard the tale from one of the jazz musicians traveling with Satchmo), a startled Nixon exclaimed, “Louie smokes marijuana?”

Satchmo’s official autobiography was published in 1954, but his manager was adamant that the “gage” parts of his life should be omitted, because pot wasn’t accepted by mainstream society at that time, and Glaser feared that Armstrong would receive serious backlash if he was allowed to be honest about his decades-long affection.

As the penalties for cannabis possession became more and more severe over the years, those closest to Armstrong even persuaded him to completely stop his cannabis consumption, because the risk was just too great.

“As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope,” he said. “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.”

In the end, Armstrong will be best remembered for his voice, his trumpet, his wide smile and his “crossover” success, but beneath it all was a privately cautious voice of reason, hoping for changes in the legal system and society’s attitude to cannabis as shown in this excerpt from the aforementioned letter to his manager:

“I’m not so particular about having a permit to carry a gun, all I want is a permit to carry that good shit…”

Although he was a recipient of numerous awards, inductions and accolades during his lifetime and posthumously, the following sentiments are perhaps the most meaningful:

“He is the beginning and the end of music in America” (Bing Crosby)

“I would say the genius of this nation at its best is indeed Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong” (literary critic Howard Bloom)

Key recordings

“Stardust”, “Hello, Dolly!”, “What a Wonderful World”, “Mack the Knife”, “Lazy River”, “Weather Bird”

Key Films

High Society (1956), Paris Blues (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1969)

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