Some people smoke weed and watch cartoons, while others get high and change the world. Our new column examines the latter in an effort to draw attention to marijuana smokers that accomplished great things because of, and not in spite of, their use of weed.
Louis Armstrong changed the history of music with his trumpet and was an unforgettable musical presence. Besides being one of the most recognized and notable jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong was also an avid pot smoker. In his mid-twenties, Armstrong was first introduced to marijuana and continued to smoke it for the rest of his life, including prior to performing and during recordings. His technical skill and imaginative prowess are in part thanks to marijuana, which was a significant part of his life.
Just around the time Louis Armstrong began to smoke marijuana, he also began experimenting with improvisation. Improvisation changed music entirely and is the definitive characteristic of jazz as we know it. Both incessant and intense in his creative, never-before-seen style, his originality blossomed into such a significant force that he was able to inspire contemporary and future generations of jazz musicians as well as listeners. With Louis Armstrong, jazz went from being the music of an ensemble to the music of an improvisational soloist, marking a significant turn in the history of American and world music. Armstrong himself was passionate about music and this passion was inspired by and intrinsically linked to his marijuana use. For Armstrong, marijuana was something positive and essential, not only to his life and health, but to his work.
On one occasion in 1930, well into his fame and popularity, Armstrong was smoking weed with his drummer, Vic Berton, outside of the Cotton Club in Culver City, CA. The band members were caught by two detectives, who allowed them to play another set before arresting them on drug charges and hauling them off to jail. Vic and Louis spent the night in a cell downtown where they were reportedly heard laughing all night and through the next morning. The judge then gave them 30 days in jail and a thousand dollar fine, which was eventually reduced in part because of pressure from club owners. Armstrong literally laughed off the charges and immediately returned to smoking marijuana.
In Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story by Max Jones and John Chilton, Armstrong explains how pot smokers of the 1920s called themselves “vipers.” According to Armstrong, vipers were people who “could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana, and it was a misdemeanor in those days. Much different from the pressure and charges the law lays on a guy who smokes pot – a later name for the same thing… We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor.”
Louis Armstrong published a memoir in 1954 called Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. His then manager, a crony of Al Capone, suppressed parts of the book that pertained to Armstrong’s marijuana use. But Armstrong was insistent on the positive effects marijuana had on his life and said he planned to write a sequel in which he would call marijuana by its code name “gage.” Unfortunately, that sequel was never published, but Armstrong is quoted as saying “the whole second book might be about nothing but gage.” Jazz critic and writer for The Village Voice Gary Giddins cites a recently published document from the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College/CUNY. He believes the document is the beginning of the sequel. It begins: “The first time that I smoked Marijuana Gage as they so beautifully calls’ it some time, was a couple years after I had left Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra… And I’m telling you, I had myself a Ball… That’s why it really puzzles me to see Marijuana connected with Narcotics—Dope and all that kind of crap… It is really a shame.”
In his later life, long after he’d given up cigarettes and drinking, he wrote President Eisenhower advocating for the legalization of marijuana. He was always adamant that it was less harmful than drinking. He once told musician and producer John Hammond that weed smoking “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.”