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Jazz Great Louis Armstrong’s Love Affair with Cannabis

Posted: April 21, 2021 in News

Jazz Great Louis Armstrong’s Love Affair with Cannabis

Louis Armstrong, known as “Satchmo” or “Pops,” was one of the first African-American cannabis activists, although he would probably deny that was his intention. As one of the most influential figures in jazz, he rose to prominence in the 1920s with his unmistakable gravelly voice and his remarkable cornet playing. He was larger than life, leaving his mark on popular culture through his universal appeal and down-to-earth attitude. Louie Armstrong referred to cannabis as gage, a term used in the early 20th C. He rivaled Willie Nelson for his love and use of cannabis. In this article, I will chronicle the life and career of Louis Armstrong and his cannabis usage.

Early Childhood

Louis Daniel Armstrong was born on August 4th, 1901 in New Orleans to 16-year-old mother Mary Albert and father William Armstrong, who abandoned the family when Armstrong was a young boy. He was raised by his grandmother until he was 5 at which time he returned to live with his mother. He spent much of his youth living in poverty. At six, he attended the Fisk School for Boys. He did odd jobs for the Karnoffsky family, Lithuanian Jews who took him in, treating him like one of their own. Armstrong’s first “musical performance” was playing the tin horn to help attract customers to the Karnoffsky’s junk wagon. Morris Karnoffsky gave Louis an advance on his wages to buy a cornet from a pawn shop.

Dropping out of school at eleven, he joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. Cornetist Bunk Johnson claimed to teach Armstrong to play the cornet by ear at Dago Tony’s honky tonk.

On December 31st 1912, Louie took his stepfather’s gun without permission and shot a blank into the air. He was arrested and given detention at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. Life there was grim, but he worked on his cornet skills, playing in the band. Professor Peter Davis became Armstrong’s first cornet teacher, teaching him basic music instruction and making him the bandleader.

Early Musical Career

In 1918, Louis traveled with jazz pianist and bandleader, Fate Marable, playing in brass bands on steamboats on the Mississippi River. Marable insisted that Armstrong learn how to sight read music, which he accomplished by age 20. He began singing in his performances and was

one of the first musicians to be featured on extended horn solos.

In 1922, King Oliver, bandleader of the Creole Jazz Band, one of the most influential Chicago jazz bands, invited Armstrong to move to Chicago to join his band. Armstrong’s musical reputation and prowess grew steadily; he could hit two hundred high Cs in a row on the cornet. For the first time in his life, Armstrong lived in his own apartment with his first private bathroom.

Armstrong and Cannabis

Satchmo tried cannabis for the first time in the 1920s and never looked back. He used it throughout his career, especially before his performances and his recordings. He referred to it as gage and to fellow cannabis-smoking jazz musicians as vipers. He described cannabis as “a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”

Here is a fun fact: Before J.K. Rowling expropriated the word “muggles” for her Harry Potter series, a term often used by jazz musicians when referring to cannabis.

Armstrong’s First Arrest

Louis Armstrong was arrested for smoking cannabis in November, 1930 outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, CA, along with his drummer Vic Berton. Armstrong spent nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles City Jail and received a six-month suspended sentence. After he served his time, he was back on the bandstand, doing what he loved to do, blowing the horn and smoking gage or “shuzzit,” another term for cannabis.

His cannabis usage and arrest had little negative impact on his career. In fact, Armstrong formed a special bond with his fellow vipers; a camaraderie among those who appreciated the benefits of the plant.

Armstrong recalled one poignant episode that happened in Chicago. Five young men turned up in a car outside his apartment and began playing instruments. They put down their instruments and one of the men pulled out a huge joint. He lit it, took two hits, looked straight into Armstrong’s eyes and passed it to him saying “Pops, we all feel like you could use this stick after all you’ve been through.’” He recalled that moment as one that helped him forget a “heap of ungodly things.”

VP Richard Nixon Smuggles Cannabis for Armstrong

One of the most often told anecdotes related by Armstrong about his experiences with gage involved then-VP Richard Nixon. In late 1953, Satchmo had just returned to the US from Japan. He was heading towards customs when he ran into Nixon at the airport. Nixon was surprised to see him, asking him what he was doing there. Armstrong explained that he had just completed a tour of Asia as a goodwill ambassador. Nixon grabbed Louie’s suitcases, one of which contained nearly three pounds of cannabis, telling him that ambassadors don’t have to go through customs. The VP unwittingly smuggled cannabis into the US for Armstrong!

The Arrest of Armstrong’s Wife, Lucille

Armstrong’s fourth wife, Lucille, was arrested by federal narcotics agents at a hotel on Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, on New Year’s Day, 1954. A customs inspector found joints totaling 14.8 grams in her eyeglasses case. It is believed that the cannabis belonged to Armstrong.

At this point, he was fed up with cannabis prohibition and lamented the fact that the price he paid for using cannabis was becoming too costly. Although gage relaxed his nerves, he was constantly in a state of fear that he would be arrested and jailed for using it. He wrote a biography in 1954 in which his manager insisted that any stories about his cannabis usage be omitted.

Louis Armstrong Death

Months before his death in 1971, Armstrong admitted to his biographers that he was forced to give up gage, despite its many medicinal benefits. Here are his final thoughts on the subject:

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. Well, that was my life and I don’t feel ashamed at all.

Sources:

leafly.com, Louis Armstrong and Cannabis: The Jazz Legend’s Lifelong Love of “The Gage,” Lisa Rough, Aug. 4, 2016

en.wikipedia.org, Louis Armstrong

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