Ah, this is a good one. But, before we dive deep down into this wondrous legend, let’s get one thing straight: In the Jazz community no one calls Louis Armstrong “Satchmo.” It’s Pops, got it? You know, as in the local friendly neighborhood patriarch and titular head of the Jazz family. Pops
As for this legend, it should be noted that, like all legends, little details that were not initially explained or transmitted may get explained, or embellished, in later tellings. These latter variations may or may not have much to do with what actually happened, but tracing the sources of this particular legend, it’s pretty likely that something did actually happen, and that something is pretty hilarious.
As the legend goes, some time in the early 1950s, Louis Armstrong and Vice President Richard M. Nixon were riding the same plane together back to the US from Japan (this seems to be the most plausible version). Apparently, Nixon was a big Armstrong fan and noticed the musical great struggling with a number of heavy cases including, of course, that of his trumpet. Nixon asked Pops if there was anything he could do to help him.
Armstrong reportedly said something like, “Oh that would be a great help, because you know, I’m starting to get pretty old. Do you think you could carry my trumpet case? It’s quite heavy.” So Armstrong gave Nixon his trumpet to carry and, since it was with the well-known and easily identifiable jowly Richard Nixon, Vice President of the United States of America, Nixon and the case sailed right through customs. (There are variations of the tale that make the destination a European country and also Russia, but apparently Armstrong never played there)
Now unbeknownst to Nixon, the trumpet case he was carrying… also contained Pops’ stash. Armstrong was, of course, a “viper”—a lifelong smoker of “the gage,” as they called it back then (and if it’s not obvious, we’re talking about marijuana here).
I heard this through my own father who had in turn heard it from the cats in Armstrong’s band during a NYC run he played in Pops’ band circa 1970. Since my own pop wasn’t a regular, he didn’t hear the story from Armstrong himself, but some of the older regulars told him that Pops relished telling the story and that they’d heard it it many, many times over the years.
As far as I’m concerned that’s just about enough for me to believe it, but some web-based clicking doesn’t reveal a lot in the way of published articles or stories. Indeed, there are lots of different versions of the story that put the event in Paris, Ghana, London, Russia and elsewhere. But stumbling across the “Snopes” message board, there seems to be a fairly reliable source for the story from the late Arvell Shaw, who was in Armstrong’s band in the late 40s and early 50s.
Given Pops’ legendary love of weed, this seems not only plausible but quite likely.
What is equally fascinating is that there may have been a second act to this story…
In 1954 (after the drug mule event), Armstrong’s wife Lucille was busted for cannabis possession. Having returned from Japan, she was in a beachfront hotel room in Waikiki when the cops burst in, searched the place, and carted her—and what was almost certainly Pops’ pot stash—off to jail. Clearly, a tip-off had occurred. Although Lucille Armstrong was eventually released and ordered to pay just a $200 fine, this prompted Pops to write a stunning letter to his manager about getting hassled for ganja:
“Mr. Glaser, you must see to it that I have special permission to smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want or I will just have to put this horn down, that’s all, 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.”...
“Can you imagine anyone giving Lucille all of those headaches and grief over a mere small pittance such as gage, something that grows out in the backyard among the chickens and so forth,” Louis emoted in his letter to Glaser. “I just won’t carry on with such fear over nothing and I don’t intend to ever stop smoking it, not as long as it grows. And there is no one on this earth that can ever stop it all from growing. No one but Jesus – and he wouldn’t dare. Because he feels the same way that I do about it…. Gage ain’t nothin’ but medicine,”
(You can find more details about the bust here...I linked to the cached version because there seems to be some spamware in the ‘real’ one.)
So the obvious question here is, who tipped off the cops in Hawaii? Did, somehow, the Vice President hear about his having been used to move Pops’ weed stash and then had one of his gang phone in a “tip”? That kind of petty revenge is certainly not outside the scope of Nixon’s character. I guess we’ll never know for sure if Tricky Dicky behind this, so deem this “act two” speculative.
But the “drug mule” bit? I’d wager this is true. It’s simply too outlandish not to be: Louis Armstrong got Richard Nixon to move his pot stash across an international border—and that alone deserves all the respect we post-modern ironic types can muster.