Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ambassador Satch Meets Tricky Dick? Not So Fast....

As long as I have been studying Louis Armstrong (19 years this week), I feel like I've always known about the famous story of then-Vice President Richard Nixon unwittingly carrying Louis Armstrong's marijuana stash across customs. In the beginning, I wanted to believe it because it's such a good story, but then I wavered and now think it's pure fiction.

However, it's back in the news in a big way. It seems to have stemmed from an opinion piece by Roger Stone that ran in the Daily Caller on August 13. Here's Stone's telling of it:

"Richard Nixon could be quite naive. In the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department made jazz legend Louis Armstrong a 'Goodwill Ambassador' and underwrote a concert tour in Europe and Asia. On his return from the first two tours, Armstrong and his entourage were waived through customs without a search based on Satchmo's ambassadorial status, but when he landed at Idlewild Airport in New York in 1958, he was directed toward the customs lines. Customs agents had been tipped off that contraband was being imported into the country. Armstrong joined a long line of travelers lined up for insprections. Unfortunately, the jazz trumpeter was carrying three pounds of marijuana in his suitcase. Once Armstrong realized he was about to be busted and would bring shame on the country he was traveling on behalf of, he began sweating profusely."

"Just then the doors swung open and Vice President Richard Nixon, in step with his security detail, swept in the room followed by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. Nixon, seeing an opportunity for a wire-photo with Armstrong, went up to the jazz man. 'Satchmo, what are you doing here?' a surprised Nixon asked. 'Well, Pops, I just came back from my goodwill ambassador's tour of Asia and they told me I had to stand in this line for customs.'"

"Without hesitation, Nixon grabbed both of Satchmo's suitcases. 'Ambassadors don't have to go through customs and the Vice President of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you,' Nixon said. Whereupon The Vice President 'muled' three pounds of pot through United States Customs without ever knowing it. When Nixon was told what happened by Charles McWhorter, who served as a traveling aide to Nixon (who heard the tale from one of the jazz musicians traveling with Satchmo),  a startled Nixon exclaimed, 'Louis smokes marijuana?'"

There you have it. After Stone's story ran in August, it was picked up by a number of outlets: the Niagra Falls Reporter, Marijuana.com, Classicalite, Hempyreum, Reddit and more. It even crowded my Facebook page for a few days. I admitted it was a helluva story but explained why I didn't buy it. Others disagreed with me, citing famous jazz musicians who have told this story as fact over the years.

I said what I had to say and was prepared to leave it at that but this week, a press release came across my e-mail. For a book about Richard Nixon. Written by Roger Stone. And featuring a single excerpt of the book to sell it. "Richard Nixon could be quite naive," it began. You know the rest.

When some jazz historians I  greatly admire started passing the press release to me a few days ago, I knew it was time to say something. So here's my take on why this story rings false.

First off, the facts as Stone relates are all messed up. Let's take them one at a time, Stone's words in italics:

In the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department made jazz legend Louis Armstrong a 'Goodwill Ambassador'....

Nope. Louis's nickname became "Ambassador Satch" in the mid-1950s and the press liked to refer to him as an "Ambassador of Goodwill" but it was not an official title. Louis never made an official State Department tour until 1960. In 1959, Louis spoke about this on one of his private tapes, telling Babe Wallace, "And then they ask me, 'Did the State Department send you?' And I say, 'You know no State Department sent me over here. It's the fans."

...and underwrote a concert tour in Europe and Asia. 

Stone places this story in 1958. Armstrong did not leave U.S. soil in 1958. He hadn't been to Asia since 1953. He hadn't been to Europe since 1956.

On his return from the first two tours,...

Again, Armstrong hadn't made any State Department tours but he made plenty of overseas trips, much more than two. France in 1948, Europe in 1949 and 1952, Japan in 1953, Australia in 1954, Europe in 1955, etc.

Armstrong and his entourage were waived through customs without a search based on Satchmo's ambassadorial status, but when he landed at Idlewild Airport in New York in 1958, he was directed toward the customs lines.

Armstrong believed his "ambassadorial status" would get him through customs? (Even though he didn't fly from overseas in 1958?) Nixon might have been naive but Armstrong wasn't.

Unfortunately, the jazz trumpeter was carrying three pounds of marijuana in his suitcase. Once Armstrong realized he was about to be busted and would bring shame on the country he was traveling on behalf of, he began sweating profusely.

Okay, stop the presses. Let's stop and think about this for a minute. Louis Armstrong had been smoking marijuana on almost a daily basis since the 1920s. He'd flown around the world numerous times since the early 1930s. But during this one trip, he's dumb enough to carry THREE POUNDS OF MARIJUANA through customs? And now he's sweating profusely? And Vice President Nixon just happens to be there at the same time? Really? Really!?

"Just then the doors swung open and Vice President Richard Nixon, in step with his security detail, swept in the room followed by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. Nixon, seeing an opportunity for a wire-photo with Armstrong, went up to the jazz man.

Stone included a photo of Nixon and Louis together with his press release. "Ah ha! There's the photo! It DID happen!" Not so fast. That photo was taken in July 1957 while Louis was playing in Washington D.C. and had lunch with Nixon while there. The photo appeared in newspapers across the country, as you can see here.


'Satchmo, what are you doing here?' a surprised Nixon asked. 'Well, Pops, I just came back from my goodwill ambassador's tour of Asia and they told me I had to stand in this line for customs.'"

Not Asia in 1958. (Though keep that in the back of your mind....)

"Without hesitation, Nixon grabbed both of Satchmo's suitcases. 'Ambassadors don't have to go through customs and the Vice President of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you,'

LOUIS ARMSTRONG WAS NOT A GOVERNMENT APPOINTED AMBASSADOR!

When Nixon was told what happened by Charles McWhorter, who served as a traveling aide to Nixon (who heard the tale from one of the jazz musicians traveling with Satchmo),  a startled Nixon exclaimed, 'Louis smokes marijuana?'"

I will admit that's the only line that made me pause. I had never heard of the McWhorter connection before so of course wondered who the musician might have been that told him. And that's when I started wondering, "Who started this damn story in the first place???"

Doing a little research, the earliest telling of the tale that I can find comes from Al Aronwitz, "The Blacklisted Journalist," in a piece he wrote about the Louis Armstrong and His Friends record date. Aronwitz published it in 1996 and told it this way:

"So, finally Miles said OK and, as we were on our way, Miles told me a story which he said came from Tommy Flanagan, the keyboard player in Satchmo's band when Satchmo and his troupe were waiting in the VIP Lounge at Orly Airport in Paris for a flight to Moscow. Satchmo and his band were on a State Department "good will" tour when, all of a sudden, Richard M. Nixon, then America's Vice-President, walked into the lounge with his Secret Service guards. When Nixon 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!' Nixon said. 'You're a national treasure! I'm your biggest fan, Mr. Armstrong.' It turned out that Nixon was going to Moscow, too. When the flight was announced and everybody started getting up to board the plane, Nixon kept asking: 'Are you sure there's 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 Louis' band got its stash past Russian customs on that particular trip."

Okay, here we go again. Check out this sentence:

Miles told me a story which he said came from Tommy Flanagan, the keyboard player in Satchmo's band when Satchmo and his troupe were waiting in the VIP Lounge at Orly Airport in Paris for a flight to Moscow.

Time out! My goodness, can it be possible to have a sentence where every single fact in it is wrong? First, Tommy Flanagan never played with Louis, not even a guest shot. In fact, Flanagan told JazzTimes in 2001 that he only began to appreciate Armstrong recently, in the beginning of the 21st century. That's a huge red flag. But a flight from Paris to Moscow? Louis Armstrong never traveled to Moscow. Never. Not once. 

So that telling of the story is a disaster but that's the way Miles Davis of all people was telling it in 1970. Can you imagine how many musicians it passed through from 1970 until Aronwitz published it in 1996? Once Aronwitz published it, that's how it was related for years to come, including a 2002 article on the Cannabis Culture website that included the Russia stuff and a mention of "Armstrong's keyboard player Tommy Flanagan." D'oh!

Now you know a little about why I feel the current telling of the Armstrong-Nixon story is bunk. Stone smoothed out some of the obvious errors--no mention of Flanagan or Russia--but invented new ones and can't hide the whiff of the myth. 

But now, a little something for the conspiracy theorists. My book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, was published in 2011 and included an entire chapter where Louis threatens to retire from performing unless his manager, Joe Glaser, got him a "permit" to "smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want to." His wife Lucille had just been arrested in Hawaii for possessing a small amount of marijuana after a flight from Japan and Louis was livid. If you've ever wondered what Louis Armstrong thought about marijuana, look no further than here. His arguments are the same ones being used in today's legalization battle. "If I should feel that I'd like a few drags, it's just got to be all right, that's all. Because gage ain't nothing but medicine. Everyone that's in [J. Edgar] Hoover's regiment knows gage is not habit-forming, or dope. It's a damn shame as much s I try to live just to make the whole world happy, they have never been able to prove marijuana as a narcotic."

Armstrong continued, "I'm not so particular about having a permit to carry a gun. All I want is a permit to carry that good shit....One an die quickly from a gun. A man carry a gun, he'll shoot it; yes he will, especially if he gets mad enough. Gage, just the opposite, you dig? You'll say present, no one could make you mad. So dig that." 

One person who read this chapter with interest was marijuana advocate and California NORML Deputy Director Ellen Komp. A trumpet player had told Komp that Armstrong had told him this story and said it happened in Japan. And remember above, Stone's dubious telling of included Armstrong saying that he had just returned from Asia. Well, Komp did her research and for the entire time Nixon was vice president, he and Armstrong were only overseas at the same time in the same place a single time: in December 1953, in Japan, right before Lucille's bust for possession. 

Komp turned her theory into a new piece for Cannabis Culture that was published on January 16, 2013. You can read it by clicking that link. I do find it a fascinating coincidence. If someone had written the Armstrong-Nixon story with actual facts and placed it in Japan in 1953, I'd pause. I will say that I might be the only person (besides Louis Armstrong) who has listened to all 750 private tapes he made, including the numerous ones in which he goes into great detail about marijuana. I've also read two autobiographical manuscripts that were unpublished in his lifetime that also dealt heavily with marijuana. And I've interviewed numerous friends and musicians who really knew Armstrong inside and out (some, like Jack Bradley, who got high regularly with him). And in all these cases--the tapes, the manuscripts, the letters--not a single trace of Nixon or this story.

Personally, I still don't believe it but I'll give it a sliver of a chance of happening in Japan. It's still not likely as Nixon returned to D.C. on December 14 and I can only pinpoint Armstrong's arrival in Japan as "mid-December" (Jet magazine said it was a "month-long" tour but they didn't publish that until December 24 and Louis was out on December 31). So even if by some chance it did happen in Japan, it definitely did not happen the way it's being told. For one thing, Lucille was arrested for having a tiny amount, one full cigarette and two stubs, hidden in her eyeglass case. That's not the same as "muling" three pounds of it. Louis was too smart for that and wouldn't have been "sweating" in fear of what he was trying to do.

Some Armstrong fans might be upset with my conclusions as the Nixon story is such a good one. But you don't need Nixon to beat up to admire Armstrong's stance on marijuana, a stance that, with the recent strides in legalization, is proving that he was on the right side of history after all. 

4 comments:

LOUIS said...

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend...

sunman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sunman said...

It's a great story, but if Pops didn't mention it on 750 tapes and in his writings, I'm with you Ricky - it didn't happen.

Howard said...

How about Jack Bradley's story that during his final hospital stay, Louis told him something akin to, "Well, the dr's and Glaser finally got me to stop. I've given up gage. But don't tell my fans!"