Virtuoso trumpeter and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once said: “Louis Armstrong is jazz. He represents what the music is all about.” Few would argue against Marsalis’ claim as Armstrong is undoubtedly the man who has truly revolutionized the world of jazz music and secured himself a place in music history as one of the best jazz players to have ever lived.
Best known for his gravelly voice, Satchmo was one of the first African-American entertainers in the United States to become successful among white audiences during the era of segregation. But, apart from being an enduring jazz icon, he is a clear representation of the American success story of the ordinary American since he faced and overcame many hardships on the road to success.
Born into a troubled household, Armstrong had to work his way through a reform school in which he had been sent after firing a gun in the air on New Year’s Eve. It was there where he fell in love with music and learned to play the cornet. The rest is history.
However, what is less known about Satchmo is that he had a special fondness for marijuana and helped in the popularization of it in the 1920s among musicians and celebrities. It appears that he was first turned onto marijuana in the mid-1920s, and continued enjoying it throughout the rest his life and career, including before performances and recording sessions.
In November 1930, Louis Armstrong became the first celebrity to be arrested for smoking marijuana when he and drummer Vic Berton were caught smoking a joint just outside the Cotton Club where they performed that same night. Little did they know that they would be spending the rest of the lovely night in a prison cell. The next morning, the police informed them that they were sentenced to six months jail, and additionally, they were required to pay $1,000 dollars each for what they did last night. Luckily for Armstrong and his friend, the sentences were eventually suspended.
A rather interesting story regarding Louis Armstong and his fondness for cannabis occurred in the late 1950s when Satchmo was at the peak of his career and was internationally known and beloved in every corner of the world. Namely, at that time, the United States sent African American jazz musicians on tours around the world to act as Goodwill Ambassadors and promote the triumph of American democracy in the era of the Cold War. The legendary Louis Armstrong was among those African American jazz musicians sent to Europe and Asia with the task to promote American culture and democracy.
The ambassadorial status had its advantages and Armstrong soon realized that he was not obliged to report what he carried in his bags to customs officers at airports throughout the United States. However, on one occasion, when Armstrong landed at Idlewild Airport in New York, he was instructed to join a long line of travelers and go toward the customs lines where he was about to be inspected. There was only a small problem – Satchmo was carrying three pounds of marijuana in his suitcase.
He began sweating profusely in fear that he might be caught by the officers at the airport. The situation was getting more and more intense and it seemed like there was no way out until Vice President Richard Nixon showed up in the room, followed by reporters and photographers. When Nixon saw Armstrong, he immediately went to him and asked him what he was doing there waiting in the line.
As written by Roger Stone in his book entitled Nixon’s Secrets: The Rise, Fall, and Untold Truth about the President, Watergate, and the Pardon, Satchmo answered: “Well, Pops [Armstrong called everyone Pops], I just came back from my goodwill ambassador’s tour of Asia, and they told me I had to stand in this line for customs.” As the story goes on, Nixon took Armstrong’s two suitcases and said, “Ambassadors don’t have to go through customs, and the vice president of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you.”
It was an offer Armstrong simply couldn’t refuse, and next thing you know, Nixon was smuggling Satchmo’s suitcase with three pounds of marijuana in it through customs. As it appears, Nixon, the father of the War on Drugs was once a jazzman’s drug mule. And later, when he was told what had really happened, Nixon just exclaimed: “Louis smokes marijuana?”