Until recently, the powers that be have demonized cannabis and persecuted smokers. Not immune to the stigma, musicians of many genres have looked to the plant for inspiration. It’s been a recurring reference in lyrics since long before legalization, leading us to want to learn more about how two seemingly unrelated topics have been intertwined throughout history.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, alcoholic beverage consumption was illegal in the United States. It was then that speakeasies and underground clubs gained popularity. Aside from drinking, something else was happening in these spaces far more special and it was the music.
In the New Orleans red-light district of the time, it was typical to find crowds drinking, smoking joints, and partying through the night to the sounds of a live band. These bands played until the place was empty, sometimes for eight hours straight. Their music of choice was jazz.
Musicians in cities like Chicago and New York also consumed the substance and it wasn’t long before the genre started to become synonymous with smoking green. The emergence of jazz occurred during the same time cannabis came under scrutiny. In 1923 Iowa, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont placed bans on the substance. State after state made it an illegal drug and by 1933, twenty-nine states had criminalized cannabis.
One of the best-known critics of the time was Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who waged a war on cannabis with the help of propaganda film Reefer Madness. Artists were quite vocal in their opposition to his policies, such as Cab Calloway who expressed his love for weed on “Reefer Man.”
Chicago-born jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Mezz Mezzrow became the principal supplier of cannabis to Harlem in the 1930s. His autobiography, Really the Blues, included a long glossary of what cannabis was commonly called during that time including “grass,” “grefa,” “gunga,” “hay,” “hemp,” “muggles,” “muta,” “reefer,” “tea,” and the now popular “weed.” Mezzrow’s popularity grew and it wasn’t uncommon to hear the term “mezzrole” referring to a specific type of joint he rolled.
Legend Louis Armstrong, born and raised in New Orleans, made a name for himself playing at underground clubs. He said this about cannabis and the scene:
“We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine; a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor… We called ourselves ‘Vipers’, which could be anybody from all walks of life that smoked and respected ‘gage’; that was our cute little name for marijuana.”
In 1930 Armstrong was arrested for smoking cannabis outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, California with his drummer Vic Berton. He spent nine days in the Downtown Los Angeles City Jail and received a six-month suspended sentence. After the stint, he was back to performing and experienced a new camaraderie with fans and fellow Vipers who felt an affinity for the gage.
In 1954 his wife Lucille was also arrested for possession, this time of one cannabis cigarette and two half-smoked stubs. It was widely speculated that the stash belonged to Louis and the incident prompted him to write a lengthy letter to Joe Glaser, his manager, on the topic of cannabis. The letter outlined that he would require special permission to smoke his gage and if this wasn’t possible, he would halt performing music altogether. Eventually, Armstrong admitted he was forced to give it up, despite the perceived benefits.
These stories are just some of the many that show the correlations between jazz and cannabis consumption.
The music genre grew and became popular alongside the progression of cannabis regulation for many years. Musicians were impacted by the plant at a time when cannabis was still misunderstood. Some speculate this was due to cannabis usage that led to the imaginative and experimental music that captivated audiences and is still a hallmark of the jazz sound today.