Updated: Mar 24
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Many Americans falsely perceive that 20th century marijuana culture emerged during the psychedelic era of the late 1960s. While certainly understandable, this skewed belief misses the mark by about half a century.
Jazz musician and songwriter Louis Armstrong, like many of his professional colleagues at the time, was a user and fan of cannabis. Armstrong, who was born and raised in then-weed-friendly New Orleans, told one of his biographers later in his life, "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."
Music historian Harry Shapiro describes marijuana as something that was used mostly by musicians, particularly jazz musicians, during the early 20th century. "In the early '20s, marihuana, muggles, muta, gage, tea, reefer, grifa, Mary Warner, Mary Jane, or rosa maria was known almost exclusively to musicians," wrote Shapiro in his 2000 book Waiting For The Man: The Story of Drugs and Popular Music.
Vipers, Muggles, and Gage
"We did call ourselves vipers, which could have been anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected gage. That was our cute little name for marijuana," said Armstrong, who became known as Satchmo to his fans.
"Muggles (or simply mugs) and gage were Armstrong's go-to names for the weed he found to be superior to alcohol."
In 1928, Armstrong released the stealthy instrumental song "Muggles," predating publication of the marijuana-influenced songs "Minnie the Moocher" and "Reefer Man" by Cab Calloway by three and four years, respectively.
Muggles (or simply mugs) and gage were Armstrong's go-to names for the weed he found to be superior to alcohol. Two years later, Armstrong and his drummer Vic Berton were busted by detectives when sharing a joint outside of the Cotton Club in Culver City, California. Mostly because the officers involved were fans of Armstrong, the famous musician served only nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles City Jail after his six-month sentence was suspended.
"I can gladly vouch for a nice, fat stick of gage, which relaxes my nerves, if I have any…I can't afford to be…tense, fearing that any minute I'm going to be arrested, brought to jail for a silly little minor thing like marijuana," wrote Armstrong in a 1954 letter to his manager that was prompted by the arrest of his wife, Lucille, for cannabis on New Years Day by federal narcotics agents at a hotel in Waikiki Beach.
"I can gladly vouch for a nice, fat stick of gage, which relaxes my nerves," said Armstrong.
U.S. customs inspectors had found Lucille Armstrong with nearly 15 grams worth of marijuana in the form of one joint and two half-smoked roaches in her eyeglasses case. It is rationally theorized that this marijuana belonged to her husband, for whom she was smuggling it.
Armstrong's love of cannabis was purposefully not published during most of his career for fear of persecution by authorities. In 1971, only months prior to his death, he agreed to discuss his career-long affinity for marijuana with biographers John Chilton and Max Jones.
"As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope. But with all the riggamaroo going on, no one can do anything about it," Armstrong told the writers. "After all, the vipers during my heydays are way up there in age—too old to suffer those drastic penalties. So we had to put it down. But if we all get as old as Methuselah our memories will always be lots of beauty and warmth from gage," said the pioneering and influential jazz musician.
"As we always used to say, gage is more of a medicine than a dope."
Armstrong, who had been a marijuana consumer long before it became illegal at the federal level in 1937, lamented the increasingly strict enforcement of cannabis prohibition that occured during his lifetime. "Well, that was my life and I don't feel ashamed at all. Mary Warner, honey, you sure was good and I enjoyed you heap much," he told the biographers.
Ultimately, the influence of prohibition dominated and Armstrong abandoned his use of marijuana. "The price got a little too high to pay," he said. "At first you was a 'misdemeanor.' But as the years rolled on, you lost your misdo and got meanor and meanor (jailhousely speaking). So bye bye, I'll have to put you down, dearest," Armstrong whimsically recalled.
"Since his passing in 1971, Armstrong has become one of the most oft-played artists during the holiday season, his golden trumpet tone still able to cut through the din of even the most bustling shopping mall," reported Verve Records/UMe in a September 2022 press release.
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