Cannabis, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and racialization of a healing plant.. October 5, 2021
By, Torrence BRANNON-Reese, MSW/Founding Director, FA-MLI, Inc.
It is a well known fact that Jazz, the esteemed, free-spirited African American musical artform, was birthed in New Orleans, where its antecedent artistic predecessors, (African based rhythmic patterns, Blues, Folk Songs, Ragtime, etc.) sprang forth from Congo Square in what today is known as NOLA’s Treme` District, or 6th Ward. As is often the case, the birth of the music was inspired into existence by the social/cultural/economic and political environment that functions as its living, breathing incubator.
In the case of Jazz, we can look to the years following the Civil War (1961 – 1865) as a kind of measuring rod, and impetus that would result in the development of the music as a refined, defined, soul stirring art, having everything to do with the collective experiences of Black people, once held in object captivity, yet, always seeking freedom, peace, mobility and ultimate liberation. These themes are synonymous with Weed, aka, Marijuana, aka, Pot, or Herb, and a plethora of other titles used to describe this magnificent, magical, healing plant, that has been a source of controversy, almost since the beginning of its arrival here, on the shores of North America.
According to various sources, the use of Marijuana dates back to at least 2700 BC, and consistent in its description is the fact that it was always used by ancient societies (African, Asian, Indian, etc) for medicinal purposes; it was then and (should be) today, seen as a “healing” herb, and often-used pain reliever. Around 1545, cannabis was introduced in Chile (South America) and from there, it spread throughout the Caribbean Islands. In 1606, herb showed up in Port Royal, Acadia, (Nova Scotia, a French Territory by 1632) and was declared a legal substance that was manufactured/ordered on a large scale and was widely distributed, as it was used to make clothes, rope, and various other useful materials.
Making its North American debut sometime in the 1800’s, the first instance of the racialization of Marijuana occurred during the period of the Mexican Revolution, (1910-1920) wherein, fleeing political turmoil and instability, Mexican Immigrants arrived in America, “weed” squarely in hand. It did not take long for the powers that be to sense the incoming, “browning” of America; hence they wasted no time in stereotyping Mexicans as “crazed,” “violent,” “wild, drug attics, who were going to destroy America from the inside out, corrupt its clean image (really?) and threaten the moral fabric established by its “colonizers” who, under the leadership of white supremist President Woodrow Wilson, were largely responsible for much of Mexico’s political instability, resulting in its ten year old Civil War.
Enter Louis Satchmo” Armstrong, (1900- 1971) the New Orleans musical genuis and trumphetic GOD, who, according to reliable sources, (himself included,) smoked Pot almost every day of his life from the age of 14, until his death at age 71! Since the 1700’s and until this day, New Orleans, sitting astride the mighty Mississippi River, is now, and ahas always been a major port city, and at one time (1800’s) New Orleans was actually the third largest city in America, doubling as the largest Slave Trading Post in the United States, essentially earned the dubious distinction as the Center of the Slave Trade! Ironically, this tragic reality contributed to the city’s distinct cultural flavor, which holds Jazz as one of its many nuggets and gifts to the world, and Louis Armstrong being its primary representative, as its all time great cultural Ambassador to the entire world!
Pops Armstrong, whose mentors/predecessors included New Orleans “Jas” Masters Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden, (September 6, 1877-November 4, 1931) Freddy Keppard (February 27, 1890) and Joe “King” Oliver (December 19, 1881 – April 10, 1938), all of whom came up playing hot music on New Orleans infamous “Storyville” Red Light District (1897 – 1917). Storyville was a place where one could find anything one could imagine, good music, great food, the fulfillment of one’s sexual desires/appetite, and the purest forms of New Orleans Golden Leaf (Reefer) one could dream of, straight in from the Caribbean! In a sense, New Orleans is as responsible for “Marijuana” as it is for its delicious creole and Cajun cuisine, romantic architecture and authentic Jazz music.
By 1917/1920, (due to the closing of Storyville and the impending first world war) Jazz had begun to travel up river to places like St. Louis and Chicago, where a musical revolution/movement was taking place, largely led by Armstrong’s central artistic influence and mentor, Joe “King” Oliver. In 1922, Little Louis, as he was affectionately referred to, would jump on a train, and join his idol in the big City of Chicago, where together, King Oliver and he would usher Jazz into its second Renaissance phase.
As time moved on, Louis began to eclipse even his mentor, showing a stark power, otherworld range and original playing style that left listeners, including the best musicians in the country, awestruck; at the tender age of 22, Louis was fast becoming a legend himself.
Fast forward to 1930, Louis Armstrong, now a national star, taking a break during intermission at the famed Cotton Club in California, was busted for smoking pot and thrown into jail, this, after years of racialized trauma, contract challenges, professional mistreatment, and basically dealing with a corrupt music industry, wherein he was required, almost on a nightly basis, to ignore his own mental health, and make the people of the world happy, via the sheer power of his magical horn.
Pot was Armstrong’s self described, “medicine” and offered him mental/psychological refuge, acting as a kind of buffer from the constant barrage of micro-aggressive behavior of greedy, crooked promoters, managers, booking agents and a young nation rife with Apartied like systems, wherein you’d function as a major star one moment, and be required to exit the back door of the very venue where your photo/image hang, attracting the adoring fans and big money generated by your GOD given gifts!
This time, Louis told his manager in no uncertain terms, fix this bullshit, I need my “medicine,” or I will put my horn down! Pops understood his power, it would not be the last time he’d assert himself and speak truth to power; in 1959, he’d speak out against the treatment of the Little Rock Nine students, and scare the hell out of the money hungry vultures whose financial lives depended upon this man and his majestic horn.
Louis Satchmo Armstrong, aka, Pops, is not only the most important musician this nation has ever produced, he is also a racial trailblazer who knew his talent, and consistently exercised his human right to speak his mind!
This film tells an important story that offers a sneak peek into a sordid history that has yet to be told in its entirety. And even today, as a few states “legalize” cannabis, the Federal Government is still wallowing in utter stupidity, (and greed) giving non-violent offenders long prison sentences for the more-often-than-not soft crime of getting high, or selling the herb to willing customers. Statistically, Blacks are four times more likely than whites to serve time in jail/prison for dealing with marijuana. On the positive side, many states have enacted policies resulting in the expungement of low level cannabis offences, yet, this nation has a long way to go. I suspect that as Governmental sources and Corporate America continue to figure out ways to earn money from the sale of cannabis, (Colonizer mentality) things may ease up on everyday people, at least I hope so…
Moments (some sick) in American Weed history, (names for Cannabis include; Gage, Marijuana, Joint, Grass, New Orleans-Golden Leaf, Gangster, Reefer, Herb, Pot, Black Gunion, Cocktail, Hemp, Hashish, Shishonish),1. 2900 BC, Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi declares Marijuana as a Medicine2, 1545, Marijuana introduced into South America3. In 1860, an international conference on Weed declared it to be a “Healing Herb ” 4. 1910, Mexican Immigrants bring weed into America5. 1890’s – 1917, New Orleans Jazz culture introduces Weed 6. Marijuana Tax Act of 1937,7. Harry Anslinger, the J. Edgar Hoover of Marijuana hatred! 8. 1970, War on Drugs, Richard M. Nixon, and on and on and on..
Last but not least, Bob Marley and the Rastafarians popularize Herb as a spiritual antidote, who can argue with brother Marley? “A Question of Culture,” is a program of FAMLI, Inc., a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit agency, founded in 1992 with a mission to improve the lives and life chances of vulnerable youth and community members via education, arts, culture and the attainment of social and racial justice.
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