Trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong was the seminal artist of jazz history—the first to combine trumpet virtuosity and an original musical vision with an entertainer’s sense of presence and persona. The result would make him the most influential instrumentalist of his generation, and bring him the respect and adulation of musicians of all eras to come, as well as a vast audience beyond jazz that has never stopped growing.
Case in point: The Guinness Book of World Records lists Armstrong as the oldest performer ever to chart a No. 1 hit record, an accomplishment achieved in 1964 when his record of Hello Dolly unexpectedly displaced the Beatles from the top position. And 17 years after his death, Armstrong’s record of “It’s a Wonderful World” generated a new young audience when it was featured in the 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam.
Most recent research gives Armstrong’s birth as Aug. 4, 1901. He grew up in New Orleans and received his first music instruction in 1913 at a children’s home. By 1915 he was sitting in with local bands. He came north to Chicago to join King Oliver in 1922 and made his first records with Oliver the following April (“Chimes Blues”). Though Chicago would be his base for the next 12 years, he went to New York for the first time in September 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson’s band and record extensively with various blues singers, including Bessie Smith, as well as with Clarence Williams and Sidney Bechet.
In November 1925 he was back in Chicago, where he began recording under his own name and building the core work upon which his reputation as a major innovator (as opposed to a popular entertainer) would forever rest. These included the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions and the early years of big band records from 1929 to 1934. During this period his trumpet style exploded from powerful New Orleans ensemble lead into a solo voice whose majesty seemed to soar with a voracious and ravenous splendor.
In 1929 Armstrong began recording popular songs, with various dance orchestras providing appropriate introductions and backgrounds to his vocals and trumpet solos.
In 1947 Armstrong officially dropped the big band and resumed performing traditional jazz with an all-star group that included Earl Hines, Sid Catlett, Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard. Armstrong’s playing loosened up somewhat, though he never strayed far from established routines. He toured and recorded with various versions of the All-Stars for the rest of his career.
In 1955 he made his first concert tour of Europe since the early ’30s. Another tour followed taking him to Africa, which was filmed by the CBS “See It Now” unit and became both a television profile and feature film documentary (Satchmo The Great). The international tours in the political context of the Cold War earned him the title “Ambassador Satch.”
In the mid-1950s he recorded his last unmitigated jazz masterpiece work, Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, for Columbia. There were also some astonishing reworkings of his early classics in A Musical Autobiography for Decca, and several session with Ella Fitzgerald for Verve that became major sellers. He continued a full touring schedule until 1968, when his health finally yielded to a weakened heart. Louis Armstrong died in July 1970.
Gage, tea, muggles, reefers, and a dozen more names for marijuana, were common parlance among jazz musicians and friends who were “Vipers.” This word has a period ring today, but was much used (as was tea) in some jazz circles during the ’30s. It found its way into quite a few tune titles, among them Mezzrow’s “Sendin’ The Vipers,” Snuff Smith’s “If You’re a Viper,” and Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag.” The rest of the marijuana-smokers’ jargon infiltrated respectable society by way of record labels and catalogues and music publishers’ lists. “Golden Leaf Strut,” “Muggles,” “Texas Tea Party,” “Chant of the Weed,” “Song of the Vipers,” and “Smokin’ Reefers” are random examples of ‘celebratory’ recordings made in the ’20s and ’30s.
Louis was caught with some stuff and sentenced in March 1931. He never recounted the story of this affair until shortly before his death in 1971, when he agreed to ‘tell it like it wuz’. This was that story.
Speaking of 1931—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, and it was a misdemeanor in those days. Much different from the pressure and charges the law lays on a guy who smokes pot—a later name for the same thing which is cute to hear nowadays. We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor. But with the penalties that came, I for one had to put it down though the respect for it (gage) will stay with me forever. I have every reason to say these words and am proud to say them. From experience.
Now I’ll relate a few incidents from the West Coast in California when Vic Berton (the top drummer then in all Hollywood) and I got busted together. It was during our intermission at this big night club which were packed and jammed every night with all sorts of my fans, including movie stars. Anyway, while Vic and I were blasting this joint—having lots of laughs and feeling good enjoying each other’s company. We were standing in his great big lot in front of some cars. Just then two big healthy Dicks (detectives) came from behind a car nonchalantly — and said to us, we’ll take the roach boys. (Hmm).
Vic and I said nothing. So one Dick stayed with me until I went into the Club and did my last show, he enjoyed it too. Because when he and I were on our way down to the police station we had a heart to heart talk. First words that he said to me were, Armstrong I am a big fan of yours and so is my family. We catch your program every night over the radio. In fact, nobody goes to bed in our family until your program’s over. And they’re all great—which I was glad to hear, especially coming from him. Ho Ho. Then I confidentially told him since you and your family are my fans they’d be awfully sad if anything drastic would happen to me, the same as the other thousands of my fans. So please don’t hit me in my ‘chops’, when he said to me, why, I wouldn’t think of anything like that. That’s all I wanted to hear. Immediately I said, OK let’s ride. I also told him—after all I’m no criminal. I respect everybody and they respect me. And I never let ’em down musically. Hell, he said, you ain’t doing any more ‘n’ anybody’s doing. It’s when they get caught is when they’re found out.
Then this Dick confidentially told me, he said, Armstrong, this wouldn’t have happened if that band leader—he probably smoked marijuana himself—who’s playing just up the road from you, and the big name that he’s supposed to have, didn’t get jealous because you are doing bigger business than him. So he dropped a nickel on you (meaning) he dropped a nickel into the telephone and called us and stoolpigeon on you. They sent me and my partner to come up for the assignment, and when we found out that you was the one we must nab (arrest) it broke our hearts. They told me, you must understand we can get you six months for a roach (meaning) the stub of a joint of gage. That’s when they laughed when I pulled my whiskers and said to them, ‘Ooh no, don’t do me no favor such as that.’ I was so relaxed on the way down to the station until I forgot I was being busted
When we reached the police headquarters there were several officers, including the man at the desk, sitting around. And the minute we came through the door they all recognized me right away. They too had been diggin’ my music nightly over the radio. Oh boy, were those guys glad to see me. They gave me one look (with glee) and said, what’ ta’ hell are you doing here this time of night away from the club? So we yakity yakity while I was being booked. That’s one reason why we appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now. The warmth it always brought forth from the other person—especially the ones that lit up a good stick of that ‘shuzzit’ or gage, nice names. Now, when it came to summing it up, the difference between the vipers and those using dope and all other kinds of drastic stuff, one could easily see who were actually dope addicts. First place they were never clean, and they stays dirty-grimey all the time. Show most addicts a bucket of water and they’ll run like hell to keep it from touching them. But a viper would gladly welcome a good bath, clean underwear and top clothes—stay fresh and on the ball.
I spent nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles City Jail, in a cell with two guys who were already sentenced to 40 or 45 years for something else. Robbery, pickpocket, or whatever they were in for, didn’t make any difference to me, and they cared less as to what I was in for. The most important thing was we were so very glad to see each other. Because it was a week ago I was blowing some good shuzzit with both of those characters. We reminisced about the good ol’ beautiful moments we used to have during those miniature golf days. We’d go walking around, hit the ball, take a drag, have lots of laughs, and cut out.
As we walked through the cellblocks, where prisoners of many many nationalities were locked up, they looked up and saw me walking with this great big deputy sheriff and (en mass) they hollered Louie Armstrong over ‘n’ over. They also hollered sing Old Rockin’ Chair, etc. etc., and I smiled and said, “Fellers, I don’t have time right now, nothing but to concentrate on what I am gonna tell this judge.” They all laughed and cheered, saying Good luck Louie. On the way to court we stopped at the clothes room to pick up the suit I went in there with. The man handed me my suit, which was torned all through the lining, looking for some stuff I guess, stronger than pot. Referring to me, he said, Why this man is no ‘Heeb’ (their word when talking about dope fiends).
So I got to trial. Everybody were there—which takes in my boss, manager and a whole gang of lawyers—and I said to myself that I was straight. Meantime the Chicago papers were all on the stands, with big headlines saying Louis Armstrong will have to serve six months for marijuana, and things like that. The judge gave me a suspended sentence and I went to work that night—wailed just like nothing happened. What strucked me funny though—I laughed real loud when several movie stars came up to the bandstand while we played a dance set and told me, when they heard about me getting caught with marijuana they thought marijuana was a chick. Woo boy—that really fractured me! Every night I would run across those same detectives who arrested me, glad as ever to see me, and me back on the mound blowing again.
…We did three shows a day, each one packed ‘n’ jammed. After two weeks in Chicago I formed a band and went on the road, playing theatres in different cities and towns.
One stop was the Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, located in a poor negro neighborhood. The people were so poor until they couldn’t afford to buy hard coal. When we arrived in the town it was as cold as a well-digger’s you-know-what. Freezing. Well, I heard about these people who were too poor to get coal to keep themselves and their kids warm, so I bought some for them. Yass I did. Went to the coal yard, ordered a ton of coal and had the company to deliver it to the Lobby of the Royal Theatre. Then I had all of the folks who needed coal, to help themselves, it made them very happy. And they made it their business to come backstage and thank me personally—of course it all caused me to stick out my chest with pride. I came up through life the hard way just like those folks.
As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope. But with all the riggermaroo going on, no one can do anything about it. After all, the vipers during my haydays are way up there in age—too old to suffer those drastic penalties. So we had to put it down. But if we all get as old as Methuselah our memories will always be of lots of beauty and warmth from gage. Well, that was my life and I don’t feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you ‘heep much’. But the price got a little too high to pay (law wise). At first you was a ‘misdemeanor’. But as the years rolled on you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor. (Jailhousely speaking). Sooo “Bye Bye, I’ll have to put you down, Dearest.”