High Times Greats: Louis Armstrong

The true story of jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s lifelong devotion to pot.
High Times Greats: Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong in 1955/ Wikimedia Commons

For the November, 1998 issue of High Times, writer Steve Gelsi investigated Louis Armstrong’s (1901-1971) ties to weed. In honor of Armstrong’s birthday on August 4, we’re republishing the story below.


Now let’s talk about pot. Yeaahhhh!” Louis Armstrong said with his trademark rasp. The year was 1970. He was at home, taping his marijuana memoirs. “Speaking of pot, we did call ourselves vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage…. That’s what we called it at that time.”

Sure, Armstrong fathered jazz music by transforming it from a backdrop for cabarets and speakeasies into a formidable art form that transcended race and class. Less known is his role in bringing pot into pop culture. It didn’t start with the hippies or the Beatniks. They got it from Louis and the vipers in the ’20s, when jazz was born in a cloud of ganja smoke. Just as Louis conquered the jazz world, he was the king of the vipers, a huge subculture of stoners that thrived in the last days of legal pot.

Armstrong was also a freedom fighter. He went to jail for pot in 1931 and had a brush with the law over it in 1954. Occasionally his activist views breached the facade created by his manager, such as when he locked horns with President Eisenhower over racism in Little Rock, Arkansas. Not only was the public watching him, the FBI opened a secret file on him as well.

Armstrong’s life as a pot-smoker is finally coming to light in a flurry of fresh material. In New York’s hip East Village, the play C Above C Above High C by Ishmael Reed featured a joint-toking Armstrong griping about Eisenhower. Pot stories abound in the biography, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen. A Newsweek article pointed out that during the recording of “Laughin’ Louie,” a 1933 Armstrong composition, “he made the whole band toke up.”

Armstrong, who died in 1971, “probably turned more people on to pot than anybody else in the world,” says his friend and photographer Jack Bradley. “His nickname ‘Pops’ comes from pot. It’s because he was the father of marijuana.”

To get a better feel for Armstrong’s high life, I paid a visit to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College in New York, near Pops’ former home in the Corona section. The collection includes copies of Armstrong’s unpublished journals, portions of which have been used in books about him. In one passage, he mused that his second autobiography, which has never been published, “might be about nothing but gage.” He wrote 1,500 words about his favorite smoke, some of which are published here for the first time.

Just as his music continues to be played on the radio, in movies and commercials, the marijuana lingo and culture popularized by Armstrong and vipers like Chicago reedman Mezz Mezzrow are as prevalent as ever. Today’s herb-fueled hip-hop scene, from Cypress Hill to Wu-Tang Clan, is in many ways a replay of the thriving viper culture of the ’20s and ’30s, when Pops was kind of a gangsta Louis. Universally accepted as an American musical pioneer, he
was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and this year Time nominated him as one of the 100 most influential artists and entertainers of the 20th century.

Satchmo Smokes

By the mid-1920s Armstrong had left New Orleans and was playing trumpet with different bands in Chicago and New York. Many called him Satchmo, a name from his youth to describe his huge grin, as big as a satchel bag. Those famous thick chops produced the most exciting horn sound anyone had ever heard. After playing for years as a sideman in some of the hottest bands, he was starting to make a name for himself as a singer and frontman.

One night outside the Savoy Club in Chicago, Armstrong was approached by a white arranger who said he had a new cigarette for him, different than the filterless Camels he normally preferred. Louis didn’t hesitate. “My mother always told me to try anything at least once,” he wrote in his journals. He took a toke, caught his first buzz and “had myself a ball.”

When he first smoked pot, it didn’t seem like a drug to him, although the common propaganda of the day labeled it a narcotic. To Pops, marijuana was just another herb, like the peppergrass and dandelions his mother would pick by the railroad tracks in New Orleans for salads and home-remedy laxatives. Pleased with the feeling, Armstrong soon started buying his own weed—10 cents for a joint at first, then 25 cents soon after. “It’s one hundred times better than whiskey,” he wrote. “It’s a nice, cheap drunk, good for asthma, relaxes your nerves.” He praised the “warm feeling” of pot and the camaraderie among smokers. It also helped him overcome traces of shyness he felt offstage.

“Muggles”

Armstrong’s most famous song about reefer was the 1928 tune “Muggles,” recorded in Chicago with pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. It’s a warm, lilting blues tune that passes the melody around like a doobie. The piano lights it up with a flame-like ripple, the trombone tokes, hands it to the clarinet, then over to Pops’ trumpet. There’s a pause, and then Armstrong hits an upward gliss as the herb kicks in. The tempo takes off and Louis blows strong.

“Muggles” and Louis’ “Song of the Vipers’’ were part of a trend of pot tunes grouped under the “Reefer Songs” umbrella. They included Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man,” Fats Waller’s “Reefer Song,” Mezzrow’s “Sendin’ the Vipers,” Benny Goodman’s “Texas Tea Party” and such titles by lesser-known artists as “Sweet Marijuana Brown” and “Save the Roach for Me.”

Armstrong smoked pot during recording sessions that produced some of his most innovative work. By now he was playing with several groups of musicians, including one new backup band reusing the name Hot Five. “This new Hot Five sounded more mellow than its predecessor, largely because Louis insisted everyone smoke some of that good shuzzitt before they began recording,” Laurence Bergreen writes in his Louis bio. “By the time the musicians played, everyone was pleasantly stoned, Louis most of all…. The band may as well have been called Louis Armstrong and His Vipers.”

After a hot gig, the party would often convene in Pops’ hotel room. A photo by Charles Peterson, taken around the same time when Louis was hanging out with Mezzrow in Harlem, shows Pops with a bunch of friends. A woman’s hand is holding a roach at the edge of the picture and everyone’s eyes are glazed and happy. Armstrong is brandishing a trumpet-sized atomizer to freshen the air.

Armstrong turned on other musicians, like trumpeter Buck Clayton, who recalled meeting Pops in his book, Buck Clayton’s Jazz World. He tracked Pops down after a show one night to ask the star to teach him his trademark gliss, a nearly impossible musical technique of sliding notes up a scale. Armstrong showed him his horn, then he pulled out a joint and lit up. Clayton was reluctant to try it because of all the antimarijuana propaganda at the time. He enjoyed his first buzz, but that night he prayed that he wouldn’t become a drug addict. He soon learned that his fears were groundless. “Pot never affected me in any kind of way except that it makes one feel elevated,” Clayton observed.

By the close of the decade, Armstrong had broken the boundaries of jazz, mostly while high, with such tunes as “West End Blues” and “Weather Bird.” “Once Louis started using reefer regularly, he decided it helped his music, his performing, his entire state of mind,” writes Bergreen. “The records he made before marijuana entered his life demonstrate that he was doing fine without it; after he began smoking he simply got better and better.”

Pops and Mezz

Like Pops, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow was a jazzman and an early freedom fighter once busted and sentenced to 20 months in jail for pot. In his autobiography, Really the Blues, Mezzrow detailed his adventures with Pops and the vipers, roughly from 1928-38.

Mezz, a clarinet player from Chicago, arrived in Harlem in the ’20s to check out the jazz explosion. Pot was already plentiful and Mezz enjoyed his share. Eventually, through his many friends, he hooked up with a superior Mexican strain. Overnight, he was the most popular man in Harlem. “Before I knew it,” he wrote, “I was standing on ‘The Corner’ [131st St. and 7th Ave.] pushing gage. Only I did no pushing. I just stood under the Tree of Hope [a lucky tree at that intersection]…. The cats came and went, and so did all my golden-leaf. I was to become known as the Reefer King, the Link Between the Races, the Philosopher, the Mezz, Poppa Mezz, Mother Mezz, Pops’ Boy, the White Mayor of Harlem.”

The vipers munched out on barbecue and listened to Armstrong records like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “St. Louis Blues” on Harlem’s first jukeboxes. By 1929, Armstrong was splitting his time between New York, Chicago and the road. Mezz met him during one of his many gigs. They would spend hours talking about jazz: nuances of a drum beat, the riff of the piano, the changes in the blues.

They dressed in dapper, double-breasted suits and soon all the rest of the vipers mimicked their look. The youngsters who would later become vipers copied Pops’ habit of holding a white handkerchief and slouching coolly with hands clasped. Unlike the boozedrinking “lushes” and later the heroin junkies that populated bebop from Charlie Parker on down, the vipers could still work hard and dress smart, hence their slogan, “Light Up and Be Somebody.” They were the original role models for marijuana.

“What a warm, good-hearted, down-to-earth gem of a human being was Louis,” Mezz wrote. “He always looked at the humorous side of life and if he saw anybody angry he’d look the situation over and say gently, ‘Well, he hasn’t dug life yet but he’s a good cat at heart.’ ’’

Antipot propaganda was building, but the vipers reached their own conclusions. “Just look at the difference between you and them other cats that come uptown juiced to the gills, crackin’ out of line and passin’ out in anybody’s hallway,” Pops told Mezz. “Don’t nobody come up that way when he picks up on some good grass.”

Jailed Twice in ’31

By the early ’30s, Armstrong had separated from his second wife, Lil, and was smoking as much as ever, despite two brushes with the law. He recounted the busts shortly before he died to Max Jones and John Chilton, authors of The Louis Armstrong Story: 1900-1971.

The trumpeter was playing at the Cotton Club in Culver City, CA, near Hollywood, in a band that featured his favorite drummer, Vic Berton. The two were sharing a joint outside in the parking lot between sets. Unbeknownst to them, a rival clubowner had summoned two detectives who saddled up to the pair and said, “We’ll take the roach, boys.” (Although pot was legal, they could still somehow bust you for it under obscure state laws.)

One detective stayed with Pops, and let him finish his last show before taking him to get booked (Armstrong made the cop promise he wouldn’t bust him in his chops). The cops at the station had been listening to Pops on the radio and were astonished to suddenly see him there. One cop said, “Hell, you ain’t doin’ anymore than what anybody’s doin’,” Pops recalled. While awaiting trial, Armstrong was locked up for nine days in the Los Angeles city jail. He faced a six-month penalty, but his sentence was suspended after friends pulled strings for light treatment.

When he got out of jail, Pops went back to the Cotton Club to play a few more shows. He was embraced by the crowd. Movie stars came up to the bandstand and kidded him about the bust. Some actually thought marijuana meant a woman—Mary Jane, not pot. Between sets, a washroom boy summoned Louis to the bathroom, where a white man from the South was patiently waiting with a burlap bag full of weed. Louis had no qualms about smoking with strangers despite his recent arrest. Together, they cleaned the fresh gage and lit up.

That year, Armstrong and his band ran into more trouble with the law in Memphis when a white bus driver refused to admit the black musicians. Cops showed up and threw Louis and his band in jail. In his book, Bergreen details the arrest that included Louis’ valet, Professor Sherman Cook. “I’ve got something in my pocket that could mean trouble,” Cook nervously told Pops, and promptly pulled out a big joint. “Hey man,” Louis said, “We can’t be in any more trouble than we are in right now.” So they smoked the joint. Soon, a band member who hadn’t gotten locked up bailed them out. They ended the day in triumph with an unexpected live radio broadcast, but the taste of racism that put them in jail in the first place stayed with Louis. His remedy was a good buzz.

“It makes you feel good, man,” Pops once told record producer John Hammond, according to Bergreen. “It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.”

“Song of the Vipers”

A nickname for Armstrong’s post-Hot Five backup band was the Vipers. Band member Budd Johnson recalls in Bergreen’s book that when they rolled through St. Louis on tour, Pops emerged from his dressing room beaming from an encounter with some local fans.

“They [the fans] held out their arms, and it was a great big joint rolled in the form of a baseball bat,” says Johnson. “It must have been about a foot long. And they had taken a fountain pen and punched holes in it to read: To The King of the Vipers from the Vipers Club of St. Louis.”

In 1934, Armstrong wrote “Song of the Vipers,” and recorded it with French backup musicians in Paris. Pops scats through the first part of the tune and ends it with a wailing horn solo. The song was pulled from stores when Louis’ record label caught on to the meaning, and it took decades for this gem to be issued again in the States.

Strung out on opium, Mezzrow blew his opportunity to manage Armstrong. By the time he kicked the habit, Louis had signed with Joe Glaser, who ran his professional career thereafter. A Chicago mobster and nightclub operator, Glaser tried ordering Pops to stop smoking during his tours. “Glaser would scream and Louis would say, ‘Fuck you,’” writes Bergreen. “Louis ultimately refrained from getting high on the bandstand, but no one was going to stop him from smoking his good shuzzitt in private, in his dressing room—not even Mr. Glaser.”

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act officially prohibited pot.

Billie, Dexter and the FBI

During the big-band years. Pops was famous in music circles for his cigar-sized joints, which he often passed out to friends. Billie Holiday, Dexter Gordon, Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, Buck Clayton and countless others lit up with him.

Publicly, Armstrong would declare that, after his first bust, he had “put it down… ’cause the law commenced to getting heavier and heavier. They fell for that crap, that gage is dope or whatever.” Remarks that he had stopped smoking drew guffaws from jazz players and friends, who knew better. Still, pot wasn’t widely embraced because of the Reefer Madness propaganda campaign initiated by the federal government and supported by the media and chemical companies like DuPont.

According to Michael Cogswell, curator of the Louis Armstrong Archives, Louis toked with jazz siren Billie Holiday in San Francisco during an earthquake. “Man, this stuff is awfully good,” he said, mistaking the tremors for the strong buzz. Jazz critic Gary Giddins interviewed saxophonist Dexter Gordon for the public-TV documentary Satchmo, based on his book of the same name. Gordon, whose career was launched by playing with Armstrong, reflected: “Every night in the intermissions, I’d go out and roll up a couple of joints of good Mexican grass. Often Pops was out there and he would come with what he would call his New Orleans Golden Leaf, which was very very sad—it was terrible, did nothing. Funny thing happened. After a couple of weeks, I noticed every time there was intermission, I’d go outside and Pops would be there. Finally, one night I said, ‘Pops, I noticed the last couple of weeks you don’t come out with your New Orleans Gold Leaf anymore.’ He said, ‘Shit, son—that’s like bringing a hamburger to a banquet.’’’ The TV special also featured a quote from Pops calling pot “an insulator against the pain of racism.”

By the end of the decade, Cold War fever gripped the country. While Senator Joseph McCarthy began his purge of left-wing entertainers, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover started spying on politicians and celebrities. In 1948, the FBI opened a file on the trumpeter. The agency would track Louis for years, but ultimately, Hoover concluded in a handwritten note in Louis’ file: “Armstrong’s life is a good argument against the theory that Negroes are inferior.”

Pops topped off the decade with an appearance on the cover of Time magazine. An illustration of the smiling musician wearing a crown made out of trumpets graced the February 21, 1949 issue.

Civil Rights, Another Brush With the Law

Armstrong’s autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, was published in 1954. Covering the first 21 years of his life—before he started smoking gage—it was intended to be the first in a series of books on his life, but Joe Glaser prevented a second autobiography, which would have exposed his pot use, from ever being published, Giddins claims.

The same year, the trumpeter almost got busted again on his way back from a trip to Japan. The January 1, 1954 edition of the New York Times carried a small Associated Press item from Honolulu with the headline, “Louis Armstrong’s Wife Seized”:

“Mrs. Lucille Armstrong, wife of Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter, was arrested today on a charge of smuggling about $5 worth of marijuana into the United States in a cigarette and two cigarette stubs. She said she was “at a loss” to explain how narcotics got into her baggage, asserting, “I do not use narcotics.” She was released on $300 bail.”

A friend of Armstrong’s told High Times that Lucille “took the rap” for Louis by carrying the joints in her purse. The incident ended up getting swept under the rug. If Pops had been carrying the stash, he might have ended up in jail again.

When Louis responded candidly to a survey about musicians’ drug use in 1955, it was somehow intercepted by Glaser. The survey surfaced 40 years later as part of an Armstrong memorabilia tour—“Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy”—compiled by Mark Miller for the Smithsonian Institute. Miller said the survey was discovered amongst Glaser’s papers in the Armstrong holdings in the Library of Congress.

Asked what percentage of musicians are pot or drug users, Armstrong answered, “I don’t care about his personal life, if I like the music.” The whole association of drugs and jazz musicians “is carried too far,” he stated. “No matter how they slice it, it’s still baloney.”

Louis checked off a box that attributed his marijuana use to doing it “just for kicks,” and then added a comment: “If the public would just leave us alone about this stuff and go ahead and enjoy the music, this would be a better world.”

Racism reared its ugly head again in 1957 when a white-power group threw a stick of dynamite at a theater in Knoxville, TN where Louis was playing. This didn’t stop Pops, however. He said he’d still play “anywhere they’ll listen.” A few weeks later, after a major racial incident in Little Rock, when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to defy a federal court order to desegregate the local schools, Armstrong angrily canceled an international goodwill tour that was in the works, saying he wouldn’t feel right representing the United States with all the racial strife going on. He called President Eisenhower “two-faced” and said the chief executive had “no guts.” The usually nonpolitical Pops was pissed.

After Eisenhower finally deployed federal troops to integrate the schools, Armstrong sent the President the following telegram: “If you decide to walk into the school with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.” The two made peace when Armstrong received birthday wishes from Eisenhower.

The telegram wasn’t the first time Louis had contacted Eisenhower. Jack Bradley says Pops had previously written a letter to the President asking him to make marijuana legal. Louis had heard that his friend Bing Crosby, a fellow stoner, had somehow gotten a waiver to grow it. “He said if Bing could have it, why couldn’t he, so he wrote Ike,” Bradley maintains. Giddins mentions the Eisenhower letter in Satchmo, but concedes that he has never seen a copy of it. A search of Armstrong’s FBI file, the Eisenhower Library and the Louis Armstrong Archives did not produce the letter. To this day, its existence remains a mystery.

Hello Louis

After living through the uptight ’50s, Pops had developed a system of code words to disguise his penchant for pot. He rarely smoked with the members of his band, instead confining his partying to close friends in the dressing room.

In 1960, Jack Bradley met Armstrong in New York through a mutual friend. One time, Pops winked and asked Bradley to get him a can of Prince Albert, a tobacco tin used to stash pot in the ’20s and ’30s. Bradley combed antique shops all over New York and finally found a can, which he filled with Mexican pot.

In another recollection, Bradley says that during an Armstrong appearance on The Tonight Show the topic of pot somehow came up. “Louis told Johnny [Carson], ‘Look, I’ve been smoking it for fifty years and I know it’s not habit-forming.’” It was an open admission disguised as a joke. Everybody laughed, but almost no one got it.

When Bradley was on the road with Armstrong, he’d see the trumpeter wake up, sit on the toilet bowl and blow a “bomber” joint. It was part of Louis’ daily routine, along with his favorite laxative, Swiss Kriss. When he wasn’t on the road, Louis liked spending time with Lucille at their modest home in Queens. He enjoyed going to Mets games in nearby Shea Stadium, eating Chinese food from neighborhood restaurants and messing around at home: writing letters, collecting magazines and photos, making recordings of dirty jokes and favorite songs. He kept voluminous journals and recorded his thoughts on reel-to-reel audio tapes.

After decades of performing and traveling, Pops was finally starting to slow down. Though he suffered from heart and kidney problems, he continued to inhale the mighty mezz. Despite his frail condition, Louis managed to steal the 1969 movie, Hello Dolly, with his still-famous rendition of the title song.

A year later, at 70, Armstrong was hospitalized. On July 6, 1971—two days after his 71st birthday—he died at home in his sleep. The New York Times’ 1,500-word obituary, not surprisingly, made no mention of marijuana.

Defending Louis

[Decades] after his death, Louis Armstrong is as famous as he ever was, and now a bit more controversial, with his marijuana use becoming more widely reported. Former bandmates interviewed for this article defended Armstrong’s pot-smoking; some still smoke themselves.

“Louis was a very conservative, law-abiding man,” says Arvell Shaw, 73. “Everything he did, he did in moderation. That’s why he lived as long as he did.” Shaw, Pops’ bass player from the ’40s to the ’60s, says Armstrong “smoked [pot] for medicinal purposes. It relaxed him and that’s all I know. I was with him for all those years and he used it for those purposes. He did it for a reason, and he did it with style.” Shaw believes in the medical powers of marijuana. “Anything that grows in the earth natural like that won’t hurt you. I’m not saying if I smoke it or not, but I do have glaucoma that needs to be treated. We’ll leave it at that.”

Joey Bushkin, 80, first met Pops in 1935 when he was working with trumpeter Eddie Condon. The pianist says he still lights up once in a while, as does Bradley. “The viper songs could have been the start of pot becoming popular in America,” he says. “The idea of getting a little high was to be creative. It sparked a change in feeling.”

Bushkin downplays Armstrong’s herb intake, especially when asked about it by students. “Pops wasn’t like Willie Nelson, who lights up all the time,” he says.

Although criticized for not breaking much musical ground after the ’30s and letting the bebop movement pass him by, Armstrong’s star has been rising again, thanks to the revival of such Louis songs as “It’s a Wonderful World,” the warm embrace he’s received from current jazz stars like Wynton Marsalis and Ishmael Reed’s theatrical tribute to him, The C Above C Above High C.

A bebopper in the ’50s, Reed was not an Armstrong supporter until he heard about the Little Rock incident. “We were surprised that he made the comment,” Reed says. “He wore a mask in front of the public, but he had a different face privately.”

As history looks past the smiling facade, Armstrong is emerging as a compelling figure, irresistible to writers and musicians, loved both by jazz connoisseurs and mainstream consumers. So it’s no wonder that the ’90s have been so Pops-friendly. Reissues of his recordings continue to flow: The Great Chicago Concert: 1956, The Complete Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong and The Complete RCA Victor Recordings all came out [around 1998].

Though most of Armstrong’s audience tends to be middle-aged, a new generation is replenishing the old. At Small’s jazz club in Greenwich Village, a 20-something crowd, lured by the low $10 cover and the laid-back, bring-your-own-booze policy, packs into the basement space. The scene, complete with old furniture, frayed rugs and smoke-filled air, evokes the spirit of speakeasies from 60 years ago, or beatnik clubs from the ’50s. Every night, jazz players wail from 10 PM to 6 AM on a tiny stage decorated by a huge black-and-white photo of Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong House to Become Museum

Louis Armstrong’s marijuana memoirs are part of a universe of personal memorabilia accessible by appointment at the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College in Forest Hills, NY.

Archives director Michael Cogswell takes a bare-all approach to the performer’s life. Unlike, say, the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, which deleted the drink’s cocaine roots from its history, Cogswell believes that the entire picture of a famous icon should be shown. Included in the archives are Armstrong’s collection of pornographic stories, photos of a bare-butted Louis that would never have been published in the ’50s or ’60s, recordings of talks with his wife, Lucille, and readings of dirty jokes with his friends. It’s all there, even a few menus from Armstrong’s favorite neighborhood restaurants.

Cogswell’s current project is to turn Armstrong’s residence in nearby Corona into a museum. With grants from New York City and other support, the public will be able to see Louis’ home much the way it was when he lived there.

Meanwhile, Cogswell labors away at the archives with Armstrongian good vibes, occasionally greeting writers and students and fielding their questions. One student recently asked if he ever found bongs or pipes among Armstrong’s possessions. “Well, I thought we might, but we didn’t,” Cogswell said. “Louis preferred rolled cigarettes.”

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  1. The comparison to groups like Cypress Hill is waaaay off-base. Listen to Armstrong’s early music, like his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Hip hop doesn’t compare in terms of originality and musicality.

    Rap is formulaic, repetitive music. Jazz is not.

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