Louis Armstrong: American Viper

Set your time machines for the year 1927 and ask your great-great-grandparents who’s the biggest star in the world. They might drop the name Louis Armstrong. Some people call him ‘Louee,’ but he pronounced Louis with a hiss, as in ‘cannabis.’ Today we remember his gravelly voice from old-school mega-hits like Hello Dolly and What a Wonderful World.

As a child, Louis’ world was not too wonderful. It was defined by poverty and racism—the likes of which we can hardly imagine. By the time Louis left this world, 58 years later, he was fat, happy and rich; a man who could boast of personal relationships with the President of the United States and the Queen of England.

Louis Armstrong was like the Kanye West of his day, except he had talent and a normal-sized ego; a ghetto kid who learned to play the hell out of his trumpet, who blew up bigger than any star in the first half of the 20th century—changing the course of American music.

But this is a magazine for fans of marijuana, not traditional jazz, so why should you care? Damn good question, but before I answer, let me ask you a question: Do you like smoking marijuana?

Okay, I admit that was a softball. You probably said: ‘Oh hell yes,’ but I’ll wager Satchmo liked it just as much, maybe more. Armstrong wrote hundreds of pages about his passion for the leaf. And though he tried to get his epic ode to herb published, the world wasn’t quite ready for pot-positive memoirs. Luckily much of his writing survives.

At the age of 26, Louis met a guy named Mezz Mezzrow. The Mezz got Louis high for the first time, and it was love at first toke. After that, he smoked pot every single day of his life: backstage, in parked cars and in alleys behind bars, nightclubs and concert halls. He got his band high at every opportunity and tracked some of the stoniest songs in all of American music. Listen to his early B-sides and you’ll hear everything from barnyard noises to awkward silences. Now you know why. “We did call ourselves Vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana…In the early 20s, marijuana, [also known as] muggles, muta, gage, tea, reefer, grifa, Mary Warner, Mary Jane or Rosa Maria, was known almost exclusively to musicians.” And you should know that Satchmo was calling his sticks (joints) the ‘shuzzit’ before Snoop’s grandparents were born.

Once, a couple of SoCal detectives caught Satchmo hot-boxing a car with a white musician, but if you expected flying nightsticks you’d be wrong. The bust earned Louis a suspended sentence and after an uneventful week in lockup, he went straight back to his gig. “I went to work that night and wailed just like nothing happened. I laughed real loud when several movie stars came up to the bandstand and told me they heard about me getting caught with marijuana. They thought Mary Warner was a chick. Woo, boy! That really fractured me.”

For the next 40 years, Louis blazed a trail all across this wonderful world, and he never again saw the inside of a jail cell due to weed. If this is easy for you to believe, it shouldn’t be, because it happened at a time when Rodney King-style beatings were a daily occurrence, and muggles was as illegal as cocaine or heroin.

“It really puzzles me to see marijuana connected with narcotics, dope and all that kind of crap. It is actually a shame. We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine.” The reference to medicine wasn’t just a metaphor. As a child, Louis’ mother taught him about wild herbs, how to cook them and how to use them in healing. Louis never forgot those lessons, and he recognized the health value of pot right from the start. Though his views were never widely publicized (for obvious reasons), Louis was an advocate for medical marijuana almost a century before legalization.

Louis avoided the law with the help of his lifelong manager Joe Glazer. Glazer is remembered as one of the nastiest, toughest guys who ever worked in the music business; the kind of guy you see in those old gangster movies calling people things like ‘you dirty rat.’ Although Glazer did not partake, he and his connections in the mob watched Louis’ back while Louis smoked stick after stick of gage and made them both rich.

These days, dropping herb references in songs is as common as auto-tune. But today’s freedom is possible because of the risks taken by those who came before us. Satchmo risked everything by standing up for his right to pursue happiness through music and marijuana, and helped pave the way for Lana del Rey to get ‘high by the beach’ and Jimi Hendrix to ‘kiss the sky.’

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