All the Gage: Louis Armstrong gets nabbed smoking pot in Hollywood

Since the early days of jazz, the music and marijuana have been intertwined. So much so, the herb is often credited in conjuring the genre from its ragtime and blues roots by opening players minds to new methods of expression and creative thought. Gage, reefer, and muggles, as they’d call it, was even then considered as a musical and social cure, and few were more a proponent for the grass than the great Louis Armstrong

Through the 1930s, Satchmo and his crew called themselves the Vipers, which included about anyone who smoked and respected gage. His love for the it led him to write songs about it. "Muggles" was his musical interpretation of a “jazz cigarette” smoked in 1928, and “La Cucaracha” was a standard of his repertoire. 

In light of the impending April 20 holiday, we’re paying tribute to jazz great and marijuana-enthusiast Armstrong by running an account in his own words, only slightly abridged, transcribed from a tape recorded interview for his biographers the year before his death in 1971.

The setting is Los Angeles, 1931, and Armstrong’s has a run in with the cops while smoking a joint hanging out with top Hollywood drummer Vic Berton, set up by a rival band leader. What follows is a funny tale, telling of prohibition era America, early jazz culture and one of America’s great musical icons. 

Now I'll relate a few incidents from the West Coast in California when Vic Berton and I got busted together. It was during our intermission at this big nightclub 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 came from behind a car nonchalantly — and said to us, we'll take the roach boys.

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 — he dropped a nickel into the telephone and called us and stool pigeon 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, it broke our hearts."

They told me, "You must understand we can get you six months for a roach — 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 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.

We didn't do much drinking lush. When we did we always figured that pot would cut liquor any time. And being c like we were we would take, a good laxative (of some kind) and keep our stomachs cleaned out, because that good stuff we were smoking gave you an appetite. And drinking makes you eat like a dog. A good cleaned out stomach makes one feel like any human deserves to feel, and I've always been physic minded. 

But back to the time I was busted on the coast.

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.

Anyway, one night real late — those two cats started fighting amongst themselves over something, and the first words they said to me was, 'Move out of the way 'Pops', we don't' want to hurt them chops.' And they fought their asses off until the jail keeper came and stopped them. One of them bit the other's finger off. They were intelligent, highly educated guys too. And they loved Pops' horn. It was actually a drag to me when I had to leave them in their cell and go to trial. They also expressed sadness. So we finally said goodbye.

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 they hollered "Louie Armstrong" over 'n' over. They also hollered, "Sing 'Old Rockin' Chair'," etcetera, etcetera, 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."

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.