• Summer 2010
By Louis Armstrong
Louis: The Louis ArmstrongStory, 1900-1971 by Max Jonesand John Chilton.
Little, Brownand Company, Boston/Toronto1971
Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrongby Terry Teachout;
Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt 2009; 474 pages,$30
In his later years the great trumpet player made hundreds of audio tapes of spoken reminiscences. This account by Armstrong of getting busted for mari- juana possession appeared in the 1971biography by Jones and Chilton.
Speaking of 1931...we did call our-selves “vipers,” which could have beenanybody from all walks of life thatsmoked and respected tight gage. Thatwas our cute little name for marijuana,and it was a misdemeanor in those days.Much different from the pressure andcharges the law lays on a guy whosmokes pot —a later name for the samething which is cute to hear nowadays.We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with muchbetter thoughts than one that’s full of li-quor. But with the penalties that came, Ifor one had to put it down, though therespect for it —gage— will stay with meforever.I have every reason to say these wordsand am proud to say them. From experi-ence. Now I’ll relate a few incidents fromthe West Coast in California when VicBerton, the top drummer then in all Hol-lywood, and I got busted together. It wasduring our intermission at this big nightclub which were packed and jammedevery night with all sorts of my fans, in-cluding movie stars.Anyway, Vic and I were blasting this joint having lots of laughs and feelinggood enjoying each other’s company. Wewere standing in his great big lot in frontof some cars. Just then two big healthydicks [detectives] came from behind acar nonchalantly and said to us, “We’lltake the roach boys.”Vic and I said nothing. So one dick stayed with me until I went into the cluband did my last show. He enjoyed it, too.Because when he and I were on our waydown to the police station we had a heart-to-heart talk. First words that he said tome were, “Armstrong I am a big fan of yours and so is my family. We catch yourprogram every night over the radio. Infact, nobody goes to bed in our familyuntil your program’s over. And they’reall great.” Which I was glad to hear, es-pecially coming from him.Then I confidentially told him, “Sinceyou and your family are my fans they’dbe awfully sad if anything drastic wouldhappen to me, the same as the other thou-sands of my fans. So please don’t hit mein my chops.”When he said to me, “Why, Iwouldn’t think of anything like that.”That’s all I wanted to hear. ImmediatelyI said, “OK let’s ride.”I also told him, “ After all, I’m nocriminal. I respect everybody and theyrespect me. And I never let ‘em downmusically.”“Hell,” he said, “you ain’t doing anymore ‘n’ anybody’s doing. It’s when theyget caught is when they’re found out.”Then this dick confidentially told me, hesaid, “Armstrong, this wouldn’t havehappened if that band leader —he prob-ably smoked marijuana himself— who’splaying just up the road from you, andthe big name that he’s supposed to have,didn’t get jealous because you are doingbigger business than him. So he droppeda nickel on you.”Meaning, “ ‘he dropped a nickel intothe telephone and called us andstoolpigeoned on you.’”“They sent me and my partner tocome up for the assignment, and whenwe found out that you was the one wemust nab, it broke our hearts.” They toldme, “you must understand we can getyou six months for a roach.” Meaningthe stub of a joint of gage...When we reached the police head-quarters there were several officers, in-cluding the man at the desk, sittingaround. And the minute we camethrough the door they all recognized meright away. They too had been diggin’my music nightly over the radio. Oh,boy, were those guys glad to see me.They gave me one look and said, “What’ta’ hell are you doing here this time of night away from the club?”So we yakity yakity while I was be-ing booked. That’s one reason why weappreciated pot, as y’all calls it now. Thewarmth it always brought forth from theother person — especially the ones thatlit up a good stick of that ‘shuzzit’ orgage, nice names.Now when it came to summing it up,the difference between the vipers andthose using dope and all other kinds of drastic stuff, one could easily see whowere actually dope addicts. First placethey were never clean, and they staysdirty-grimey all the time. Show mostaddicts a bucket of water and they’ll runlike hell to keep it from touching them.But a viper would gladly welcome agood bath, clean underwear and topclothes —stay fresh and on the ball.
I spent nine days in the DowntownLos Angeles City Jail, in a cell with twoguys who were already sentenced to 40or 45 years for something else. Robbery,pickpocket, or whatever they were in for,didn’t make any difference to me, andthey cared less as to what I was in for...So I got to trial. Everybody were there—which takes in my boss, manager anda whole gang of lawyers— and I said to
“Tight Gage —More a Medicine Than a Dope”
especially for you. Hmmm...I went into the men’s room and therewas this fine ofay musician, a good one,whose father was big judge down south,so you can easily see he was well off.He led me to the corner and showed methis sack. It was full of gage in therough—dirty looking and had to becleaned. He said “Louis, this muta —oneof the names lots of the Ears used—came from out of the backyard where thechickens trampled all over it, so it shouldbe well seasoned.”He and I went to the hotel over onCentral Avenue, rolled up our sleeves,cleaned it real beautifully and rolled upone a piece. We dragged on down half-way to a “roach” and he was right. Whenwe got on down there we could taste thecackling, the crowing and the otherthings those chickens did. Beautiful!We finished at the club with a bigclosing night, and a big farewell celebra-tion from everybody. With a promise toreturn, which I did a year later, I left thecoast, arriving home in Chicago on aSunday morning. Had a sleep up into theafternoon, then had my supper while lis-tening to some of my records. Lil wasout visiting some place. The door bellrang. I went to the door and found oneguy standing there, pointing towards fourother youngsters getting out of the car. Isaid “Boys, I’m very glad to see you. It’sbeen a long long time.”The minute they came in they toldme, “Pops, we came to serenade you.”Those boys pulled out their guitars, ukeset cetera and wailed awhile with a per-fect beat which lifted me up just beauti-fully. Then they put up their instruments,one cat pulled out a big bomber, lit it,took two drags and looked straight intomy eyes as he passed it to me, saying,“Pops, we all feel you could use this stick after all you’ve been through.”I said, “Aw boys, y’all didn’t have todo this,” reaching for that joint at thesame time.Each of them pulled out a stick a pieceand started blowing and talking about alot of interesting things. That momenthelped me to forget a heap of ungodlythings. Made me have the right frame of mind for my opening day at the theateron the South Side, which was reallysomething else. After all, the vipers andmyself that I was straight.Meantime the Chicago papers wereall on the stands, with big headlines say-ing “Louis Armstrong will have to servesix months for marijuana,” and thingslike that. The judge gave me a suspendedsentence and I went to work that night— wailed just like nothing happened.What struck me funny, though, Ilaughed real loud when several moviestars came up to the bandstand while weplayed a dance set. and told me, whenthey heard about me getting caught withmarijuana they thought marijuana was achick. Woo, boy, that really fractured me!Every night I would run across thosesame detectives who arrested me, gladas ever to see me, and me back on themound blowing again.Now I’m back in the club, andeverything’s running along verysmoothly when one night the washroomboy comes up to the bandstand and saysthere is a white boy in the washroom whowants to see me in there. I asked who itwas, and he said, I don’t know but he just came up from the south and he has alarge croaker sack —meaning Burlapbag— full of something that he said is
CHARLES PETERSON, ZUTTY SINGLETON, AND ARMSTRONG relaxingafter a concert. Stokes’ text: “At the table in drummer Zutty Singleton’s Harlemapartment in February 1942, Charles Peterson, Louis, and his friend sincetheir youthful New Orleans days have clearly enjoyed the host’s chicken gumbo—as well as what Pops is pinching between thumb and index finger... As isalways the case when he appears in the photo, photographer Peterson composedthe frame and then had someone hold the camera and click the shutter, in thiscase Commodore record label producer Milt Gabler.”LOUIS ARMSTRONG MUGGING WITH ATOMIZER in a photo from
“Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson,”
by W. RoyalStokes. Temple University Press, 1994. Stokes’ accompanying text:“Flit-gun atthe ready in Feburary 1942, Louis fumigates the room of the telltale fragrance.The pinched thumb and forefinger of the woman indicate that she holds theoffending marijuana ‘roach.’ To the left of Armstrong is pianist Nick Aldridge,who appeared in the 1943 film ‘Stormy Weather’ with a group billed as theTramp Band.”
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