Louis Armstrong

Born: July 4, 1901 (or 1898?)

Died: July 6, 1971


Louis Armstrong was first turned onto marijuana in the mid-1920s, and he smoked it all his life, including before performances and recordings. In 1954 Louis published a book titled, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. Gary Giddins reveals that Joe Glaser an Al Capone acolyte who was Armstrong's manager later in his career, suppressed parts of the book that dealt with marijuana. Armstrong planned to publish a sequel which he said he would call "Gage"--slang for marijuana. He said, at one point, "This whole second book might be about nothing but gage."

Giddins thought the book had been lost, but a recently published document, taken from writings held at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College/CUNY, is thought to be the beginnings of it. It begins: "The first time that I smoked Marijuana (or) Gage as they so beautifully calls' it some time, was a couple of years after I had left Flecther Henderson's OrchestraÉAnd I'm telling you, I had myself a BallÉThat's why it really puzzles me to see Marijuana connected with Narcotics--Dope and all that kind of crapÉIt is actually a shame." Sections of the work that survived the censorship show that Armstrong regarded marijuana as an essential element in his life and beneficial to his health.

Armstrong is "one of the most, if not the most important figure in twentieth century music. Almost singlehandedly he remodeled jazz...he was the pre-eminent musical genius of his era. It was Louis Armstrong more than any other person, who impelled other young musicians to take improvisation as their basic method." (Collier)

The child of a prostitute raised in the rough and colorful Storyville section of New Orleans, Louis never had a Christmas tree or a birthday celebration, and often went without shoes. At a young age, he was responsible for feeding and clothing his mother and sister. Music was everywhere and for two years Louis was part of a vocal group that sang for pennies on street corners. Sent to the Colored Waifs Home after a New Years Eve incident involving a .38 pistol in 1912 or 13, Armstrong was recruited into the Home band. His natural abilities were soon noticed and he became the band's bugler, leading to a career that started in Bix Beiderbacke's band and took him to Chicago and the world.

Armstrong was arrested in November 1930 while smoking marijuana with drummer Vic Berton outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, California. Variety, under headline "Drug Charges Against Jazz Band Musicians" said that pair were arrested by narcotic officers and arraigned on charges of possession of marijuana, "a dopeweed used in cigarettes." According to Vic Berton's brother Ralph, "The cops took Vic and Louis downtown, where they spent the night in a cell, laughing it up--they were still high. They stopped laughing the next morning when the judge game them six months and a one thousand dollar fine each." Connections, possibly through graft exercised by Prohibition-era club owners, got the sentences suspended and "Armstrong went back to smoking marijuana almost immediately." The furor in press died down.

Never a heavy drinker, he gave up cigarettes and "from the later 1920s on he smoked marijuana on a daily basis, although Dr. Gary Zucker, one of Armstrong's doctors, saw no evidence that it did him any harm." Armstrong told John Hammond, "It makes you feel good, man, 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." Later he wrote President Eisenhower, advocating legalization. It was, he felt, less harmful than alcohol.

An LA-based trumpet player who toured with Armstrong told me in January, 2007 that Louis said he once ran into Richard Nixon at an airport in Japan. Nixon said, "Hi Pops, can I do anything for you?" and Louis, who had his gage in his case, asked Nixon to carry it for him. Both Armstrong and Nixon toured Japan in 1956.

On July 6th, 1971, the following statement was made available to the press on board Air Force One en route to San Clemente, California: "Mrs. Nixon and I share the sorrow of millions of Americans at the death of Louis Armstrong. One of the architects of an American art form, a free and individual spirit, and an artist of worldwide fame, his great talents and magnificent spirit added richness and pleasure to all our lives." The U.S. State Department said of Armstrong, "His memory will be enshrined in the archives of effective international communications. The Department of State, for which he traveled on tours to almost every corner of the globe, mourns the passing of this great American." On July 9, 1971, Leonard Garment, Special Consultant to the President, represented the President at Armstrong's funeral services in New York City.

Louis Armstrong in His Own Words, Oxford University Press, 1999
Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong, Gary Giddins, 1988
Louis Armstrong: An American Genius James Lincoln Collier Oxford University Press 1983
Ken Burns's documentary Jazz, PBS


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