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What a Wonderful Wasted World

Discussion in 'Legalization and Activism' started by Superjoint, Nov 12, 2003.

  1. By John Gleeson -- Winnipeg Sun
    Source: Winnipeg Sun

    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 story.

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

    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 marijuana.

    * 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 1942.

    * 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 trends.

    * 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.

    John Gleeson is the editor of the Winnipeg Sun.

    Source: Winnipeg Sun (CN MB)
    Author: John Gleeson -- Winnipeg Sun
    Published: November 7, 2003
    Copyright: 2003 Canoe Limited Partnership
    Contact: editor@wpgsun.com
    Website: http://www.fyiwinnipeg.com/winsun.shtml
  2. Wow....what a great story...now I have yet one more reason to appreciate Sachmo!

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