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Louis Armstrong: Genius and Drugs

"Satchmo" Armstrong smoked three cigar-sized blunts daily throughout his life

Louis Armstrong's life is too amazing to take it all in in one gulp - as many of his contemporary political, jazz, and entertainment figures were unable to do. But he does make us think hard about marijuana addiction.

Armstrong was born in August, 1901 and grew up in New Orleans' red-light district - prostitution was essentially legal, and his mother probably prostituted (his father abandoned the family, and Armstrong was raised by his grandmother during his early childhood).

Armstrong developed an unusual relationship with his mother - treating her more like an older sister. But they were devoted to one another. In his remarkable biography of Armstrong, Laurence Bergreen describes Armstrong's mother taking him - when Armstrong was 16 or 17 - to teach him to drink "like a man." They got stinking drunk in New Orleans speakeasies.

But Armstrong never developed a drinking problem. Bergreen attributes Armstrong's sobriety (that means moderation, AAers) to another unlikely source - Armstrong's massive marijuana consumption throughout his life, which Armstrong regarded as a healthy alternative to drinking. And it might have been (compared with lethal moonshine liquor during Prohibition), were it not for the way he consumed the drug - "three cigar-sized joints a day, at least, throughout his life."

Armstrong developed lung problems later in life, and died before reaching his 70th birthday. It seems hard to believe he lived what today we would consider such a short life, given his turn-of-the-century life in New Orleans, his pioneering work in jazz there and in Chicago, and - as many people are surprised to learn - his living the last nearly 30 years of his life, from WWII on, in a residential neighborhood in Corona Queens (his home there is a national museum).

So, what did Armstrong accomplish - aside from being a beloved national figure and goodwill ambassador for the United States abroad? At one time, many jazz figures ridiculed him for his crude, "Hello Dolly" musical efforts. But even jazz greats like Miles Davis eventually realized that Armstrong was a genuine pioneer who anticipated the be-bop, free form jazz movement of the 1950s and 60s with both his early trumpet playing and his scat singing.

And what about his politics and racial attitudes? Armstrong seemed to be entirely color-blind and apolitical. Bergreen attributes this in part to Armstrong's close relationship with an immigrant Rumanian Jewish family in New Orleans, on whose junk wagon he blew a horn to attract customers. The family treated Armstrong like a member, bought him his first trumpet, and encouraged his musical aspirations.

Because he presented himself as a thoroughly happy and contented American, and represented the United States overseas, Armstrong was regarded by many civil rights and black entertainment figures as -- you know what. That all changed when Governor Orval Faubus refused to allow African-American children to integrate the Little Rock school system after Brown v. Board of Education, ringing a school with Arkansas national guardsmen to prevent kids from entering.

President Dwight Eisenhower at first wavered in the face of Faubus' racist intransigence (kind of like leading Republicans today in campaigning to prevent gay couples from achieving equal rights). Although Armstrong rarely spoke out on racial matters, a student journalist caught him in a hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota in September, 1957. Armstrong shocked everyone in the interview, saying Eisenhower was "two-faced" and lacked "guts" for not forcing Faubus' hand, and saying he would refuse to follow through with his planned goodwill tour of the Soviet Union.

Soon after Eisenhower ordered in federal troops to effectuate desegregation. But Armstrong paid a price - leading political figures wondered if he were fueling Soviet propaganda against the United States (which Armstrong noted in this case was true), and Southern stations refused to play his music.

So, class, the question is: how did a hard-core pothead serve as a seminal American musical, racial, and public relations figure for a half century? And how would an adoring American public have reacted to Armstrong if they knew this about him?

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