DOPE: Louis Armstrong Wants To Take You Higher


NEW YORK TIMES: Louis Armstrong’s celebrity cannot be separated from his artistry; it is central to his place in the history of jazz, which is harder to explain than is commonly understood. He did not invent jazz, nor was he its first important figure, and it is not even quite right to call him the first great jazz soloist (Sidney Bechet preceded him, and Bix Beiderbecke emerged as a major soloist at the same time as Armstrong, almost to the month). Instead, he became the first great influence in jazz — the player other players copied — and one reason he cast so long a shadow is that he was as great a personality as he was a musician. He really did perform with everyone from Bessie Smith to Leonard Bernstein; he really did smoke marijuana virtually every day of his adult life; he really did write the finest of all jazz memoirs, unassisted by a ghostwriter; he really did end his concerts (some of them, anyway) by playing 250 or more high C’s, capped with a high F; he really was adored (no lesser word is strong enough) by all who knew him. MORE

RELATED: Armstrong was arrested in November 1930 while smoking marijuana with drummer Vic Berton outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, California. (While marijuana wasn’t against federal law until 1937, California outlawed weed in 1927.) “The cops took Vic and Louis downtown, where they spent the night in a cell, laughing it up — they were still high,” said Vic Berton’s brother Ralph. “They stopped laughing the next morning when the judge gave them six months and a $1,000 fine each.” Satchmo was convicted on the pot charge in 1931, but his commercial reputation and popular appeal survived. The jazz musicians’ connections, possibly through graft performed by Prohibition-era club owners, got the sentences suspended and “Armstrong went back to smoking marijuana almost immediately.” The brouhaha soon died down in the press. “It makes you feel good, man, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro,” Armstrong told John Hammond. “It makes you feel wanted, and when you’re with another tea smoker, it makes you feel a special kinship.” MORE

RELATED: Armstrong, Anderson said, “was the sweetest, warmest man.” But the raspy voiced trumpeter also had a mischievous side.  “In this sporting and rather profane life the stories are seldom printable,” Anderson said. “But Pops smoked marijuana everyday of his life. Once, he and Richard Nixon (before becoming president) were flying from Europe in first class. I wasn’t there, but it turned out Nixon was a huge fan of Louis Armstrong, and just loved meeting him.  “Anyway, Pops at the time had his stash in his trumpet case. That was always a little worrisome for him (having to take it through customs). It was time to get off the plane and Nixon said, ‘Is there anything I can do to help.’ He said, ‘Oh, yes Richard, I’m old and this trumpet is so heavy, do you think you could carry it for me?’ And, of course, Richard Nixon carried it through customs. And nobody checked anything that Richard Nixon was carrying. So Richard Nixon was Louis Armstrong’s drug mule. He must have been dying laughing on the inside.” MORE