Louis Armstrong asked Richard Nixon to carry his bags through customs for him because he’was an old man’. The bags had marijuana in them.
Louis Armstrong was first turned onto marijuana in the mid-1920s, and he smoked it all his life, including before performances and recordings.
Armstrong was arrested in November 1930 while smoking marijuana with drummer Vic Berton outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, California. Variety, under headline “Drug Charges Against Jazz Band Musicians” said that pair were arrested by narcotic officers and arraigned on charges of possession of marijuana, “a dopeweed used in cigarettes.”
According to Vic Berton’s brother Ralph, “The cops took Vic and Louis downtown, where they spent the night in a cell, laughing it up-they were still high. They stopped laughing the next morning when the judge game them six months and a one thousand dollar fine each.” Connections, possibly through graft exercised by Prohibition-era club owners, got the sentences suspended and “Armstrong went back to smoking marijuana almost immediately.” The furor in press died down.
In 1954 Louis published a book titled, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans. Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins reveals that Joe Glaser, an Al Capone acolyte who was Armstrong’s manager later in his career, suppressed parts of the book that dealt with marijuana. Armstrong planned to publish a sequel which he said he would call “Gage”-slang for marijuana. He said, at one point, “This whole second book might be about nothing but gage.”
Giddins thought the book had been lost, but a recently published document, taken from writings held at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College/CUNY, is thought to be the beginnings of it. It begins: “The first time that I smoked Marijuana (or) Gage as they so beautifully calls’ it some time, was a couple of years after I had left Flecther Henderson’s Orchestra…And I’m telling you, I had myself a Ball…That’s why it really puzzles me to see Marijuana connected with Narcotics-Dope and all that kind of crap…It is actually a shame.
An LA-based trumpet player who toured with Armstrong told me in January 2007 that Louis told him he once ran into Richard Nixon at an airport in Japan. Nixon said, “Hi Pops, can I do anything for you?” and Louis, who had his gage in his case, asked Nixon to carry it for him. Both Armstrong and Nixon toured Japan in 1953. Just afterwards, Lucille Armstrong was arrested for carrying what was widely speculated to be Louis’s stash.
The incident prompted Armstrong to write, and record, a letter to Glaser from San Francisco. “Can you imagine anyone giving Lucille all of those headaches and grief over a mere small pittance such as gage, something that grows out in the backyard among the chickens and so forth,” Louis emoted in his letter. “I just won’t carry on with such fear over nothing and I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus-and he wouldn’t dare. Because he feels the same way that I do about it.”
Louis bounced back, joking he’d “get higher next time” on a “What’s My Line?” appearance shortly thereafter. In High Society, the musical version of The Phildelphia Story co-starring Louis’s buddy and VIP Bing Crosby, Louis sings the title song, at one point possibly pantomiming rolling a joint.