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—52— O’Shaughnessy’s • Summer 2010

“Tight Gage —More a Medicine Than a Dope”


By Louis Armstrong especially for you. Hmmm...
Louis: The Louis Armstrong I went into the men’s room and there
Story, 1900-1971 by Max Jones was this fine ofay musician, a good one,
whose father was big judge down south,
and John Chilton. Little, Brown
so you can easily see he was well off.
and Company, Boston/Toronto He led me to the corner and showed me
1971. this sack. It was full of gage in the
rough—dirty looking and had to be
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong cleaned. He said “Louis, this muta —one
by Terry Teachout; Houghton- of the names lots of the Ears used—
Mifflin Harcourt 2009; 474 pages, came from out of the backyard where the
$30 chickens trampled all over it, so it should
be well seasoned.”
In his later years the great trumpet He and I went to the hotel over on
player made hundreds of audio tapes of Central Avenue, rolled up our sleeves,
spoken reminiscences. This account by cleaned it real beautifully and rolled up
Armstrong of getting busted for mari- one a piece. We dragged on down half-
juana possession appeared in the 1971 way to a “roach” and he was right. When
biography by Jones and Chilton. we got on down there we could taste the
cackling, the crowing and the other
Speaking of 1931...we did call our- LOUIS ARMSTRONG MUGGING WITH ATOMIZER in a photo from things those chickens did. Beautiful!
selves “vipers,” which could have been “Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson,” by W. Royal We finished at the club with a big
anybody from all walks of life that Stokes. Temple University Press, 1994. Stokes’ accompanying text:“Flit-gun at closing night, and a big farewell celebra-
smoked and respected tight gage. That the ready in Feburary 1942, Louis fumigates the room of the telltale fragrance. tion from everybody. With a promise to
was our cute little name for marijuana, The pinched thumb and forefinger of the woman indicate that she holds the return, which I did a year later, I left the
and it was a misdemeanor in those days. offending marijuana ‘roach.’ To the left of Armstrong is pianist Nick Aldridge, coast, arriving home in Chicago on a
Much different from the pressure and who appeared in the 1943 film ‘Stormy Weather’ with a group billed as the Sunday morning. Had a sleep up into the
charges the law lays on a guy who Tramp Band.” afternoon, then had my supper while lis-
smokes pot —a later name for the same tening to some of my records. Lil was
thing which is cute to hear nowadays. happened if that band leader —he prob- myself that I was straight. out visiting some place. The door bell
We always looked at pot as a sort of ably smoked marijuana himself— who’s Meantime the Chicago papers were rang. I went to the door and found one
medicine, a cheap drunk and with much playing just up the road from you, and all on the stands, with big headlines say- guy standing there, pointing towards four
better thoughts than one that’s full of li- the big name that he’s supposed to have, ing “Louis Armstrong will have to serve other youngsters getting out of the car. I
quor. But with the penalties that came, I didn’t get jealous because you are doing six months for marijuana,” and things said “Boys, I’m very glad to see you. It’s
for one had to put it down, though the bigger business than him. So he dropped like that. The judge gave me a suspended been a long long time.”
respect for it —gage— will stay with me a nickel on you.” sentence and I went to work that night The minute they came in they told
forever. Meaning, “ ‘he dropped a nickel into — wailed just like nothing happened. me, “Pops, we came to serenade you.”
I have every reason to say these words the telephone and called us and What struck me funny, though, I Those boys pulled out their guitars, ukes
and am proud to say them. From experi- stoolpigeoned on you.’” laughed real loud when several movie et cetera and wailed awhile with a per-
ence. Now I’ll relate a few incidents from “They sent me and my partner to stars came up to the bandstand while we fect beat which lifted me up just beauti-
the West Coast in California when Vic come up for the assignment, and when played a dance set. and told me, when fully. Then they put up their instruments,
Berton, the top drummer then in all Hol- we found out that you was the one we they heard about me getting caught with one cat pulled out a big bomber, lit it,
lywood, and I got busted together. It was must nab, it broke our hearts.” They told marijuana they thought marijuana was a took two drags and looked straight into
during our intermission at this big night me, “you must understand we can get chick. Woo, boy, that really fractured me! my eyes as he passed it to me, saying,
club which were packed and jammed you six months for a roach.” Meaning Every night I would run across those “Pops, we all feel you could use this stick
every night with all sorts of my fans, in- the stub of a joint of gage... same detectives who arrested me, glad after all you’ve been through.”
cluding movie stars. When we reached the police head- as ever to see me, and me back on the I said, “Aw boys, y’all didn’t have to
Anyway, Vic and I were blasting this quarters there were several officers, in- mound blowing again. do this,” reaching for that joint at the
joint having lots of laughs and feeling cluding the man at the desk, sitting Now I’m back in the club, and same time.
good enjoying each other’s company. We around. And the minute we came everything’s running along very Each of them pulled out a stick a piece
were standing in his great big lot in front through the door they all recognized me smoothly when one night the washroom and started blowing and talking about a
of some cars. Just then two big healthy right away. They too had been diggin’ boy comes up to the bandstand and says lot of interesting things. That moment
dicks [detectives] came from behind a my music nightly over the radio. Oh, there is a white boy in the washroom who helped me to forget a heap of ungodly
car nonchalantly and said to us, “We’ll boy, were those guys glad to see me. wants to see me in there. I asked who it things. Made me have the right frame of
take the roach boys.” They gave me one look and said, “What’ was, and he said, I don’t know but he mind for my opening day at the theater
Vic and I said nothing. So one dick ta’ hell are you doing here this time of just came up from the south and he has a on the South Side, which was really
stayed with me until I went into the club night away from the club?” large croaker sack —meaning Burlap something else. After all, the vipers and
and did my last show. He enjoyed it, too. So we yakity yakity while I was be- bag— full of something that he said is continued on next page
Because when he and I were on our way ing booked. That’s one reason why we
down to the police station we had a heart appreciated pot, as y’all calls it now. The
-to-heart talk. First words that he said to warmth it always brought forth from the
me were, “Armstrong I am a big fan of other person — especially the ones that
yours and so is my family. We catch your lit up a good stick of that ‘shuzzit’ or
program every night over the radio. In gage, nice names.
fact, nobody goes to bed in our family Now when it came to summing it up,
until your program’s over. And they’re the difference between the vipers and
all great.” Which I was glad to hear, es- those using dope and all other kinds of
pecially coming from him. drastic stuff, one could easily see who
Then I confidentially told him, “Since were actually dope addicts. First place
you and your family are my fans they’d they were never clean, and they stays
be awfully sad if anything drastic would dirty-grimey all the time. Show most
happen to me, the same as the other thou- addicts a bucket of water and they’ll run
sands of my fans. So please don’t hit me like hell to keep it from touching them.
in my chops.” But a viper would gladly welcome a
When he said to me, “Why, I good bath, clean underwear and top
wouldn’t think of anything like that.” clothes —stay fresh and on the ball.
That’s all I wanted to hear. Immediately
I said, “OK let’s ride.” I spent nine days in the Downtown
I also told him, “ After all, I’m no Los Angeles City Jail, in a cell with two
criminal. I respect everybody and they guys who were already sentenced to 40
CHARLES PETERSON, ZUTTY SINGLETON, AND ARMSTRONG relaxing
respect me. And I never let ‘em down or 45 years for something else. Robbery,
after a concert. Stokes’ text: “At the table in drummer Zutty Singleton’s Harlem
musically.” pickpocket, or whatever they were in for,
apartment in February 1942, Charles Peterson, Louis, and his friend since
“Hell,” he said, “you ain’t doing any didn’t make any difference to me, and
their youthful New Orleans days have clearly enjoyed the host’s chicken gumbo
more ‘n’ anybody’s doing. It’s when they they cared less as to what I was in for...
—as well as what Pops is pinching between thumb and index finger... As is
get caught is when they’re found out.” So I got to trial. Everybody were there always the case when he appears in the photo, photographer Peterson composed
Then this dick confidentially told me, he —which takes in my boss, manager and the frame and then had someone hold the camera and click the shutter, in this
said, “Armstrong, this wouldn’t have a whole gang of lawyers— and I said to case Commodore record label producer Milt Gabler.”
O’Shaughnessy’s • Summer 2010 —53—

Louis Armstrong continued from previous page


In the first of these accounts,
Armstrong discusses “gage” (his pre- After his bust on Nov. 14, 1930
ferred nickname for marijuana) in con- Armstrong was accused of violating the
nection with his mother’s advise to take California Poison Act, which banned
a laxative daily. She had given him a marijuana possession. On Dec. 8 he was
potion concocted out of “Pepper Grass, arraigned and pleaded not guilty. He
Dandelions, and lots of weeds similar to changed his plea to guilty on March 10,
gage” that she picked by the railroad 1931, and was sentenced to 30 days in
tracks, brought home, and boiled up into jail. Teachout comments:
a ‘physic.’” Later he saw young white
musicians looking “fresh —neat and California v. Louis Armstrong
very much contented” after their gigs, Armstrong recalled that he spent a to-
and learned that they were smoking tal of nine days in jail before being re-
marijuana instead of drinking alcohol. leased, though his account, taped nearly
He did so and became an ardent advo- four decades later, incorrectly suggests
cate. that he served this time immediately af-
At one point he started writing a book ter his arrest.
in which he called for the legalization of Why was he let off so easy? Accord-
marijuana, declaring it to be “an Assis- ing to Charlie Barnet, the police “had no
tant —a friend, a nice cheap drunk” and substantial legal precedent because mari-
ARMSTRONG IN SEATTLE HOTEL ROOM, photographed by Milt Hinton claiming that it was both “a thousand juana wasn’t classified as a narcotic then,
(c) The Milton J. Hinton Photographic Collection, www.MiltHinton.com.Hinton times better than whiskey”... and safer and they were afraid of being sued if they
was playing bass with Armstrong at the time (1953). After a gig, writes Terry than “Heroin, Cocaine, etc. or some other interfered with performances at the
Teachout, Armstrong “unwound by smoking a joint, catching up with his cor- unGodly shit...” club.” That may have been part of it,
respondence, and listening to music on the two reel-to-reel tape recorders that Armstrong’s preference for marijuana but Ralph Berton, Vic’s younger brother,
he carried with him wherever he went. Armstrong was one of the first Americans over alcohol was known to jazz musi- later claimed that the drummer’s boss,
to purchase commercially manufactured tape recorders (Bing Crosby was cians everywhere, as well as to fans who who led the band at the Ambassador
another) when they became available after World War Two... He transferred shared his tastes. One “club” of St. Louis Hotel’s popular Cocoanut Grove night
his record collection to tape so he could listen to music on the road.” smokers presented him with a joint the club, put the fix in...
size of a baseball bat, along with a card The King of Vipers went back to work
fans in Chicago thought I was actually It became customary for Armstrong dubbing him “King of the Vipers.” Many at the Cotton Club with the utmost
serving time from the incident on the and his sidemen (except Earl Hines, who younger players later said that it was promptitude. He continued to play there
coast with my boy, Vic Berton, whom I disliked marijuana) to get high before Armstrong who first got them high. until the following March, when he went
still think is the greatest drummer of all making a record, which probably ex- “The first person I ever saw smoke on trial before Judge William Tell
times. plains how ‘Muggles’ got its name... marijuana,” Charlie Barnet wrote in his Aggeler, who preached him a starchy
He left behind two posthumously memoirs, “was Louis Armstrong.... Dur- little sermon...
published accounts of his experiences ing an intermission we all went over to Armstrong then served nine days of
The vipers and fans in Chi-
with the intoxicant herb in which he ad- hear Louis. He was down in the base- his 30-day jail term, after which the
cago thought I was actually mitted to having enjoyed it enormously. ment rolling the stuff and I know I had judge obligingly suspended the remain-
serving time from the incident The least hypocritical of men, he saw no some that night.” der of the sentence.
on the coast. reason to conceal the fact, known to all Marijuana was still legal in most
his friends, that he smoked pot nearly states when Armstrong started using it.
every day: “I felt at no time when ever I Mezzrow remembered how the two of
So the theater was packed to the
ran across some of that good shit, that I them would “roll our cigarettes right out
rafters. They came to hear what their boy
was breaking the law, or some foolish in the open and light up like you would
Louis had to say, and when I was intro-
thought similar to it...” on a Camel or a Chesterfield...”
duced you can imagine the house com-
ing down with thunderous applause
which lasted for a whole gang of min-
utes. Made my heart flutter with happi-
ness.
The Triumph of “Scientific Medicine”
Soooo, when they quieted down, I Rockefeller Medicine Men by E. Ri- of life and commerce. Improving the same ends, though Gates and others
said “Yeah, you thought I was. But I chard Brown; University of Califor- health of the population was thus an en- were far more circumspect in discuss-
wasn’t.” And that did it. Such yells! nia Press, Berkeley, 1979, 283 gineering job that involved understand- ing them.” In other words, the corpo-
“Dipper! Satchelmouth! We’re glad to pages ing and manipulating nature... rate leaders were intent on bringing
see you back!” We went into our show “Gates embraced scientific medicine the “benefits of civilization” to us, too.
Marijuana prohibition was imposed as a force that would: 1) help unify and
and every tune was a gasser. We did three The goal of the Rockefeller Foun-
in the first third of the 20th century, as integrate the emerging industrial society dation in the U.S. was to transform the
shows a day, each one packed and millions of Americans were shifting with technical values and culture, and 2) medical profession into a modern
jammed... from work on family farms to indus- legitimize capitalism by diverting atten- priesthood that would inculcate re-
As we always used to say, gage is trial jobs. Also in this period, practitio- tion from structural and other environ- spect for technology and industrial
more of a medicine than a dope. But with ners of “scientific medicine” were mental causes of disease.” culture. “Research institutes were the
all the riggermaroo going on, no one can marginalizing all other alternative ap- Thanks to Gates, “The Rockefeller temples of the new religion,” Brown
do anything about it. After all, the vi- proaches to health care, including Foundation discovered what the mission- observes.
pers during my haydays are way up there herbal medicine. aries also knew: medicine can be used to The American Medical Association
in age, too old to suffer those drastic pen- E. Richard Brown explains who was convert and colonize the heathen... be- became the mechanism for driving out
alties. So we had to put it down. But if behind the rise of scientific medicine cause medical care is so seductive to even competition from herbalists, homeo-
we all get as old as Methuselah our and why. the most reluctant people. paths, and all other practitioners who
memories will always be of lots of A Baptist minister named Frederick “In China, Gates switched from sup- had not been trained at elite medical
beauty and warmth from gage. Gates advised John D. Rockefeller, Jr. porting the religious missionaries to schools (whose labs and hospitals re-
to underwrite medical research and edu- building a Western medical system... In quired underwriting by the wealthy,
Teachout’s Perspective cation. “Gates appreciated the human the Philippines, the foundation’s Interna- and whose tuition fees effectively ex-
Some light is shed on Armstrong’s body as one of nature’s puzzles, to be tional Health Commission outfitted a cluded working-class students).
marijuana use and the 1930 bust in these investigated by science... Science was hospital ship to bring medical care and Scientific medicine “focused atten-
excerpts from his most recent biography, helping industry reshape tion on the individual.” It derived cred-
‘the benefits of civiliza-
“Pops,” by Terry Teachout. the organization of pro- ibility from the work of European bac-
tion’ to the rebellious
duction by developing
Moro tribes. The foun- teriologists who had “identified dis-
All that is known for sure is that he machinery to control and
dation officers were crete, external, and specific agents of
started smoking it on a regular basis in cheapen human labor
ecstatic that such medi- disease. This perspective encouraged
1928 and continued to do so for the rest and more cheaply extract
cal work made it ‘pos- the idea of specific therapies to cure
of his life. He would later explain to an from nature a salable
sible for the doctor and specific pathological conditions, and
acquaintance that it “makes you feel product. Science would
nurse to go in safety to it diverted attention from the social and
good, man. It relaxes you, makes you for- also extract from nature
many places which it economic causes of disease.”
get all the bad things that happen to a the secrets of life itself
has been extremely The cult of technology supported a
Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and while medicine would
dangerous for the sol- definition of medicine that excluded
when you’re with another tea smoker it apply them to understand
dier to approach.’” “crude” herbs. It was conceded that a
makes you feel a special kinship.” It was disease and develop
In the U.S., “their plant might contain a specific active
also, unlike alcohol, legal, though 29 methods of preventing or
domestic medical pro- ingredient that could be isolated, syn-
states had outlawed its use and sale by curing these pestilences
grams had exactly the thesized, and marketed as medicine.
1931.

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