Louis Armstrong and cannabis: The jazz legend’s lifelong love of ‘the gage’
Louis Armstrong: just the name evokes the image of a dark, smoky dance hall filled with classic jazzy trumpeting tunes tinged with nostalgia. Known fondly as “Satchmo” and “Pops,” Louis Armstrong is instantly recognizable for his unmistakable gravelly voice and unique trumpet-playing. He rose to prominence in the 1920’s, one of the first African-American musicians to cross the line into popularity and influence not only jazz music, but popular culture in general.
On August 4th we celebrate the birth of one of the most influential figures in jazz. But did you know that Pops loved his pot?
Growing up in ‘the Battlefield’
Armstrong was born on August 4th, 1900, into an impoverished family in New Orleans, and grew up in a rough neighborhood known as “the Battlefield.” His father abandoned the family when Armstrong was a young boy and his mother often had to resort to prostitution to keep the family afloat. It was during these formative years that young Satchmo was first introduced to the dance halls – filled with scandalous dancing, ladies of the night and jazz musicians.
He often found himself in trouble for general delinquency as a teenager. There is a particularly notable anecdote in which the young boy shot his stepfather’s .38-caliber pistol into the air on New Year’s Eve – a move that landed him a stint in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It was there that Armstrong met the man who would change his life: Professor Peter Davis, who would teach Louis Armstrong how to play cornet and provide the basic musical instruction that would alter the course of American music for generations to come.
Armstrong’s first gigs were playing in brass bands on steamboats floating up and down the Mississippi River. He traveled with Fate Marable, a jazz pianist and bandleader who recognized the raw talent in Pops and encouraged him to embrace his inventive improvisational style.
Vipers and ‘the gage’
Louis Armstrong first tried cannabis in the 1920’s and used it throughout his career, including before performances and recordings. He referred to cannabis affectionately as “the gage,“ a common parlance of the times.
“We did call ourselves the Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected the gage,” he said when describing his relationship with cannabis to biographer Max Jones.
“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.”
It is said that the jazz instrumental song “Muggles” was influenced by cannabis. Before muggles popped up in popular culture thanks to one Ms. J.K. Rowling, the term “muggles” or “mugs” was a term often used by jazz musicians to refer to cannabis.
Pops gets popped
Armstrong was arrested in November of 1930 while smoking the gage outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, California, with his drummer Vic Berton. He described the incident to a biographer years later:
“Vic and I were blasting this joint – having lots of laughs and feeling good, enjoying each other’s company. Just then two big healthy dicks [detectives] came from behind a car nonchalantly and said to us, ‘We’ll take the roach, boys.’”
Detectives confided in Armstrong that the arrest was prompted by a bandleader who was jealous of Satchmo’s natural talent and called a “stool pigeon” on him. Luckily, the detectives were fans of Armstrong’s music, and although he spent nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles City Jail, his jaunt to jail only proved to cement his love of the plant.
“That’s one reason why we appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now. The warmth it always brought forth from the other person – especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that ‘shuzzit’ or gage, nice names.”
Armstrong received a six-month suspended sentence. After his nine-day stint, he was back on the bandstand, where some of his admirers struck a funny chord upon hearing the news of his arrest.
“I laughed real hard when several movie stars came up to the bandstand while we played a dance set and told me, when they heard about me getting caught with marijuana, they thought marijuana was a chick. Woo boy – that really fractured me!”
The aftereffects of his arrest for cannabis would ripple throughout his career, but it rarely had a negative impact. Rather, Armstrong found a camaraderie among his fellow Vipers and a kinship with those who felt a similar affinity for the gage.
In describing one such encounter in Chicago, Armstrong recalled, “The doorbell rang. I went to the door and found one guy standing there, pointing towards four other youngsters getting out of the car. These boys pulled out their guitars, ukes, and wailed awhile with a perfect beat which lifted me up beautifully. Then they put up their instruments, one cat pulled out a big ‘bomber’ – lit it, took two drags and looked straight into my eyes as he passed it to me, saying ‘Pops, we all feel like you could use this stick after all you’ve been through.’” He reflected on the moment as one of joy and inspiration. “That moment helped me forget a heap of ungodly things.”
Did Richard Nixon smuggle cannabis for Armstrong?
Perhaps the most oft-told fable from Armstrong’s storied relationship with the gage involves Japan, a suitcase, and then-Vice President “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
In late 1953, after Armstrong flew out of Japan, he encountered Vice President Nixon at the airport. Nixon was surprised to see the trumpeter and said, “Satchmo! What are you doing here?”
Armstrong explained that he had just finished a goodwill ambassador’s tour of Asia and was now headed towards customs. Nixon scoffed and grabbed Satchmo’s suitcases, saying, “Ambassadors don’t have to go through customs!”
The jazz legend’s suitcase, filled with nearly three pounds of cannabis, was carried by Vice President Richard Nixon through the airport, bypassing customs entirely. Tricky Dick unknowingly smuggled cannabis into the United States for Louis Armstrong.
Later, a congressional aide named Charles McWhorter informed Nixon of the mishap after hearing the tale from traveling musicians. A startled Nixon exclaimed, “Louis smokes marijuana?”
On New Year’s Day in 1954, Armstrong’s wife, Lucille, was arrested by federal narcotics agents at a hotel on Waikiki Beach. A U.S. customs inspector found one cannabis cigarette and two half-smoked stubs, the weight of which totaled an impressive 14.8 grams.
The cannabis was found in Lucille Armstrong’s eyeglasses case, but it was widely speculated that the stash belonged to Louis. Her arrest prompted Louis to sit down at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel in San Francisco and write a lengthy letter to his manager, Joe Glaser, on the topic of gage.
“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.”
Armstrong was fed up with prohibition long before legalization was even a consideration.
“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.”
Telling it like it wuz
Armstrong published a biography in 1954 entitled Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, but his manager insisted that the part pertaining to marijuana be suppressed, with a possible sequel planned someday that would be simply called Gage, on the premise that the entire second book “might be about nothing but gage.” The sequel was never published and Armstrong’s affinity for the reefer remained a rumor throughout his career.
In the months leading up to his death in 1971, Armstrong finally agreed to sit down with biographers Max Jones and John Chilton and “tell it like it wuz.” He admitted that eventually he was forced to give up the gage, despite its medicinal benefits.
“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.”
In the end, the penalties for illegal cannabis were too much even for the legendary Louis Armstrong:
“Well, that was my life and I don’t feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you heap much. But the price got a little too high to pay. At first you was a ‘misdemeanor.’ But as the years rolled on, you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor (jailhousely speaking). So bye bye, I’ll have to put you down, dearest.”