Pubdate: Fri, 07 Nov 2003
Source: Winnipeg Sun (CN MB)
Copyright: 2003 Canoe Limited Partnership
Author: John Gleeson
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Popular)


With everyone from the U.S. drug czar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving
howling over the coming decriminalization of marijuana in Canada, we
are faced yet again with a one-sided debate, as the illegal status of
pot keeps its most credible defenders silent.

Indeed, when the PM begins joking about toking in his dotage you know
the lunatics have taken over the weed tent.

That's where a little history can help -- in the form of a jazz

Something to let Grandma know that Reefer Madness is really Hello,

That, yes, Satch was a viper, and his wonderful world was wasted, but
it was wonderful all the same.

In the years after the Second World War, Louis Armstrong was bigger
than popes or presidents. More than a jazz legend, he was the world's
most beloved entertainer -- a symbol to war-ravaged Europe of
America's goodness, courage and indomitable cool.

No wonder that at the height of the Cold War the U.S. State Department
tried repeatedly to send Armstrong and his All Stars to the Soviet
Union to play; he was such an American turn-on.

He was also a daily marijuana smoker from about age 27 until his death
in July 1971, one month short of his 70th birthday.

"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," Armstrong told
biographer Max Jones in his last years, when he decided to "tell it
like it wuz."

Armstrong, of course, couldn't tell it exactly like it wuz. He had to
deny he was a present user, but he was unequivocal in his praise of
"gage," as he called marijuana.

"We did call ourselves vipers, which could have been anybody from all
walks of life that smoked and respected gage," Armstrong said. "One
reason we appreciated pot, as y'all calls it now, (was) the warmth it
always brought forth from the other person.

"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. The respect for it will stay with me
forever. I have every reason to say these words and am proud to say
them. From experience."

Armstrong's experience with marijuana warrants public exposure,
because it counters so many clinical stereotypes.

Armstrong was well on his way to being a recognized musical giant
before he took his first regular toke -- his scrappy, soulful and
downright demonic-paced Hot Five and Hot Seven "race records" of the
1920s had established him among musicians as the pre-eminent jazz
soloist of his generation and a brilliantly original singer.

After starting his 43-year association with marijuana in 1928, the
mature Armstrong

* Entered his "classic" phase, teaming up with a young Earl Hines on
piano to record the body of work that jazz critics consider
Armstrong's -- and therefore jazz's -- finest. Among the jewels were
West End Blues, which some rate the best jazz record ever made, and a
dreamy number called Muggles, which just so happened to be slang for

* Radically and permanently expanded the jazz songbook to include pop
standards, endearing himself to a largely white audience with songs
like When You're Smiling, Ain't Misbehavin', Rockin' Chair, Body and
Soul and All of Me.

* Transcended the record industry's segregated label system, opening
the door for other black artists.

* Wowed New York and then Hollywood, appearing in dozens of films
including Pennies From Heaven (1936), A Song is Born (1948) and High
Society (1956), for which Cole Porter wrote two Armstrong numbers. He
also made a handful of three-minute music videos called "soundies" in

* Worked with such diverse talents as Billie Holiday, Danny Kaye, Duke
Ellington and Bing Crosby, who once said: "Rev. Satchelmouth is the
beginning and the end of music in America."

* Reinvented the New Orleans sound with his All Stars at landmark 1947
concerts, standing pat in the face of bop and other "fancy" musical

* Travelled the world with the All Stars, performing more than 300
nights a year and planting jazz and its offshoots in the U.K. and
beyond, doing what he called "my day's work, pleasing the people and
enjoying my horn."

* Became, in February 1949, the first jazz musician to appear on the
cover of Time.

* Recorded some of his best albums, including classic duets with Ella
Fitzgerald, in the '50s and enjoyed his first million-selling hit,
Mack the Knife, in 1955.

* Knocked the Beatles from their 14-week hold on No. 1 with Hello,
Dolly in May 1964 -- more than four decades after his first recordings
were cut with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

Worshipped by musicians, adored by the public and loved by the people
who knew him (including ex-wives), the mature Armstrong's career was
dazzling, his life positively storybook.

And through it all, he smoked his gage.

"His regimen," wrote David A. Jasen and Gene Jones in Black Bottom
Stomp (Routledge, 2002), "included a daily dose of Swiss Kriss (an
herbal laxative that he swore by), a few applications of the lip salve
made for him by a German trombonist named Franz Schuritz, some red
beans and rice -- when he could find them on a hotel menu -- and
several marijuana cigarettes."

Despite his habit, he was always a meticulous professional,
dependable, emotionally stable and universally cherished for his
folksy wit and wisdom.

The only time the pot ever had overt negative consequences was in
November 1930 when Armstrong was busted smoking a joint in the parking
lot of the New Cotton Club in Los Angeles. He spent nine days in the
city jail awaiting trial, and his record company sent an eastern
gangster named Johnny Collins to L.A. to "fix" the problem.

"Whether he used sweet reason or hard cash, Collins did the job,"
wrote Jasen and Jones. "Louis received a suspended sentence and went
back to work and back to pot. He never smoked it in a public place
again but he would smoke it every day for the rest of his life."

Collins used the incident to muscle his way into controlling
Armstrong's contract; it took about three years for "the brightest
star in jazz" to dump "the worst manager in show business."

Even in jail, Armstrong encountered some fellow vipers.

"We reminisced about the good ol' beautiful moments we used to have
during those miniature golf days," he said. "We'd go walking around,
hit the ball, take a drag, have lots of laughs and cut out."

You can say Armstrong did it to feel good -- call it recreational if
you like.

Or you can point to the unimaginable poverty of his childhood, the
racism of his time, and say he used it as a crutch to take the edge
off life's pain.

You can risk ridicule and say he did it because it helped connect him
to the truth as a man and an artist.

You can definitely say it's too bad he smoked so much -- he died of
heart failure and, like the late Israel Asper, might have lived on for
another decade if he didn't smoke like a chimney.

But no one can say the mature Armstrong should have been denied his
daily muggles -- any more than you could deny Asper his daily packs.

They came and went in clouds of smoke.

End of jazz story.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin