Some of you Rhythm Planet fans may recall my previous about Richard Nixon as an unwitting ‘mule’ for Louis Armstrong’s hidden stash, but I’ve just unearthed yet another version of this funny bit of jazz history that I just had to share.
By now, there are probably as many versions of this story—it’s too good to be apocryphal—as there are versions of the New Testament books in the Bible. Louis Armstrong (b. 1901–1971) or “Satchmo,” as he was fondly referred to (short for his ‘satchelmouth,’ meaning a big, satchel-like mouth) after an announcer coined the nickname, was the first black entertainer to be admired by both black and white people. Born and raised in abject poverty in New Orleans, he found solace from his childhood misfortunes playing the cornet and trumpet.
By the 1950s, the U.S. State Department was sending African-American writers, artists, musicians, and sports figures as Goodwill Ambassadors around the world to promote American democracy during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Armstrong had been scheduled for a state-sponsored Soviet tour when the 1957 Little Rock Nine school desegregation battle broke out. In addition to publicly denouncing then-President Eisenhower across national news, Armstrong contacted the U.S. State Department and told them—specifically Richard Nixon, who was then Vice President and an Armstrong fan—that he wouldn’t go on tour. Federal marshals were sent in to integrate Central High School, and the tour went on as planned.
In 1969, the newly elected President Nixon invited Armstrong to perform at the White House. Rather than accepting, he rejected the invitation (using an expletive) cursing the fact that he hadn’t been invited earlier and surmising that it was just a show to appease the African-American community.
And finally, the marijuana debacle. There are several versions of this story: One story has it that Armstrong returned from a newly-independent Ghana with a trumpet case full of weed (or as he liked to call it: “gage,” which he felt was more appropriate to the sacrament of smoking a joint, as he did daily, preferring it to alcohol). Anyway, Nixon came out to greet him at Dulles Airport, asking if there was any way in which he could be of service, upon which Armstrong requested that he tote his gage-laden trumpet case through customs.
In another version, it was on a flight returning from London to New York that Nixon helped get the gage through customs.
The most recent version I’ve read was from the book, Miles on Miles: Interviews and Encounters with Miles Davis, in which Miles recounts a story he heard from jazz pianist Tommy Flanagan, the keyboard player in Satchmo’s band during one of the State Department’s good will tours. The group was in the VIP lounge at Orly airport in Paris when Vice President Nixon suddenly walked into the lounge with his Secret Service guards:
“When he saw Satchmo, the vice president immediately rushed up to him and, almost getting down on his knees, grabbed for Satchmo’s hand as if to kiss it. Slobbering all over Satchmo, Nixon began telling Satchmo what a national monument Satchmo was. ‘You’re like the Statue of Liberty! You’re a national treasure! I’m your biggest fan, Mr. Armstrong!'”
“When the flight was announced and everybody started getting up to board the plane, Nixon kept asking, ‘Are you sure there is nothing I can do for you, Mr. Armstrong?.’ The band had a lot of luggage. Louis picked up a couple of pieces and handed them to Nixon, saying, ‘Yeah! Would you mind carrying these, Mr. President?'”
And that, according to Flanagan, was how Armstrong’s band got its stash past Russian customs on that particular trip. (Miles on Miles, pg. 74)
I also checked Laurence Bergreen’s authoritative 1998 biography on Armstrong, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, but found no mention of this episode. When I emailed him he responded that Louis’s manager, Joe Glaser, had the role of keeping him out of trouble.
Whether true or apocryphal, the story keeps coming back to us in so many different versions, and it’s such a wonderful story that I figure why not just smile and accept it as true? With so many variants, things like this can’t be made up!!