Keith Halderman: Louis Armstrong and Marijuana an Anecdote

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Keith Halderman is a research assistant at the Trebach Institute and is working on his Ph.D at American University. His is a member of the Liberty and Power group blog at HNN.]

If we were to nominate the five most influential black people in American history the name Louis Armstrong would certainly belong on our list. His contribution to the uniquely American art form jazz was immeasurable. In 1936, French music critic Hughes Panassie` wrote, "I do not think I am making too strong a statement when I say that Louis Armstrong is not only a genius in his own art, but is one of the most extraordinary creative geniuses that all music has ever known." About a decade later Down Beat magazine declared, "Nearly everyone agrees that Louis Armstrong is the outstanding figure in the history of jazz. The greatest trumpeter, the greatest vocalist, the greatest showman, the greatest influence, just the greatest."

His significance extended well beyond the field of music for jazz was an important meeting ground for Blacks and Whites. Even the FBI acknowledged Armstrong’s role in furthering racial tolerance with notes of praise in his file one saying that "...Armstrong's life is a good argument against the theory that Negroes are inferior." During the Cold War, when the State Department needed a good will ambassador to the contested third world it chose Louis Armstrong. His talent, enthusiasm, and genuine love for his audience helped Armstrong rise above the intolerable segregation he endured on the road, to win the respect and admiration of both races.

In a 1961 article for The Commonweal jazz critic Nat Hentoff pointed out that, "In jazz, its lay brothers proclaimed, a man was judged on his musicianship, not his color, in contrast to nearly all other areas of the damaged melting pot at the time, except perhaps for professional boxing." This principal came into play in the mid-1920s when Armstrong left New Orleans and the white musicians in Chicago got to hear him play. They were awestruck and he observed "... they would really enjoy my trumpet playing with the highest enthusiasm that any human being could do for another." (from Louis Armstrong in His Own Words, page 112) Just up from the South, Armstrong felt a warmth and closeness to these often brilliant musicians that elated him. The feeling was mutual so they turned him on to marijuana.

In his recent biography Laurence Bergreen summed up Armstrong’s relationship with the drug; "He loved marijuana too. He smoked it in vast quantities from his early twenties until the end of his life; wrote songs in praise of it; and persuaded his musician friends to smoke it when they played. He planned to call an unpublished sequel to his autobiography Gage, his pet name for marijuana, but once his manager found out about the title and the subject of the work, he suppressed the manuscript, trying to protect Louis's reputation. Sections of the work that survived the censorship show that he regarded it as an essential element in his life and beneficial to his health." (from Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, page 4) Armstrong maintained marijuana to be a thousand times better than whiskey and that it relaxed him while also keeping him clear headed. He pointed out that, though he smoked marijuana, during the entire forty-five years he had been blowing trumpet he had never let his public down, claiming that they had a reverence for each other.

Historically, most of evidence, from the 1894 British Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report to the 2002 Canadian Senate report, against marijuana prohibition has been empirical and comprehensive. While the bulk of the evidence favoring proscription has been anecdotal, from the Florida boy, depicted in the 1937 American Magazine article "Marijuana Assassin of Youth", who, supposedly under the influence, axe murdered his family to a present day Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) commercial portraying an alleged pot smoker as a deflated rubber doll glued to the couch too lazy to change the TV channel with the remote, much less chop up another human being. Turn about is fair play, so, let us compare the anecdote of Louis Armstrong’s life with the case for marijuana as a dangerous drug.

The arguments against marijuana have drastically changed over time. During the 1920s and 1930s, when prohibition came about, reform groups and government officials strenuously maintained that marijuana caused it users to become violent and that long term use led to inevitable insanity. After World War II the primary rationale for keeping marijuana illegal became the "stepping stone" or "gateway" theory, the idea that smoking pot caused the use of harder more hazardous drugs. A common modern day point of view on the drug is presented in the following paragraph from the online encyclopedia Encarta's entry on marijuana; "Negative effects of marijuana use can include confusion, acute panic reactions, anxiety attacks, fear, a sense of helplessness, and loss of self-control. Chronic marijuana users may develop amotivational syndrome characterized by passivity, decreased motivation, and preoccupation with taking drugs. Like alcohol intoxication, marijuana intoxication impairs judgment, comprehension, memory, speech, problem-solving ability, reaction time, and driving skills." Contemporary charges also include a propensity towards lung disease and depression in users.

Although he operated in an often violent milieu, which included the honky tonks of New Orleans and mafia owned venues in Chicago and New York, there is no record of Armstrong committing violent acts himself, no arrests, no charges of domestic violence from his ex-wives. As for insanity he contended that he "always had a sane mind from the day he was born." (Armstrong, page 114) The only time anyone attributed bizarre behavior to Armstrong was when he spoke up for civil rights during the Little Rock school desegregation controversy.

The notion that marijuana leads to the use of more problematic drugs also finds no support from the life of Louis Armstrong. Easily available heroin and cocaine held no interest for him and Armstrong never used them. He wrote that, "...it really puzzles me to see Marijuana connected with Narcotics -- Dope and all that kind of crap ... It is actually a shame." (Armstrong, page 112) His criticism of the Bebop musicians included both their sound and their use of heroin.

Armstrong eluded amotivational syndrome too, in fact, a fair description of him might include the word workaholic. He composed dozens of jazz standards, recorded over a thousand songs, averaged more than 300 concert dates per year, toured much of the world for the State Department, had parts in thirty plus films, became ubiquitous on radio and television, and found time to write two autobiographies, more than ten magazine articles, hundreds of pages of memoirs, and thousands of letters. He kept up this strenuous pace well into his sixties.

He worked so hard because he enjoyed it, as he enjoyed life in general. No confusion, acute panic reactions, anxiety attacks, fear, a sense of helplessness, and loss of self-control plagued Louis Armstrong. He often commented on how good life had been to him. Though given ample cause, the era’s brutal segregation, marital strife, problems with his management, and involvement in underworld conflicts, to be depressed, Armstrong never succumbed. His last big hit recording carried the title "What a Wonderful World" and he always believed it was.

Marijuana did not affect Armstrong’s memory, he carried literally thousands of tunes in his head. It did not impair his judgment, comprehension, or problem solving ability when it came to his career, he earned the accolades of the world as well as financial security. His speech in the form of scat singing has influenced vocalists ever since it was first heard. As for reaction time, it was an essential element of his genius. The improvisional nature of jazz required quick and innovative reactions and Louis Armstrong was the master.

Louis Armstrong's biography reveals no automobile accidents. It does, however, disclose a remarkable set of lungs. A consensus of jazz critics consider recordings he made for Okeh records in 1925 under the name Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five then later Hot Seven to be among the finest in jazz history, with his ability to hit the high notes especially remarkable. No one with lungs impaired by marijuana smoking would have been able play that music. Yet, Armstrong reported that some specific songs were laid down after he and the band had smoked, the implication being that this was the usual practice. One of the tunes named "Muggles" was a synonym for marijuana. Armstrong continued to play and record until the very last year of his life, with plans for more music when his health recovered. He died of heart disease, one of the few illnesses that the government has not yet tried to link to, as Armstrong would put it, that beautiful gage.

In his book Chocolate to Morphine Dr. Andrew Weil correctly contends that, "Any drug can be used successfully, no matter how bad its reputation, and any drug can be abused, no matter how accepted it is. There are no good or bad drugs; there are only good and bad relationships with drugs." The evidence is clear, Louis Armstrong had a very good relationship with marijuana and we are all the better for it.
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