Notes From the Music Blog: Louis Armstrong’s Pot Habit

Pops a Pothead?
There’s a great little anecdote in the new Louis Armstrong biography, Pops, written by Terry Teachout, about the trumpeter and his predilection for marijuana. The story reveals the truth that as long as you’ve got music clubs and parking lots, the chronic will surely follow. Armstrong, writes Teachout, was a lifetime smoker, hands down preferring weed to booze: “The least hypocritical of men, [Armstrong] saw no reason to conceal the fact, known to all his friends, that he smoked pot nearly every day: ‘I felt at no time whenever I ran across some of that good shit, that I was breaking the law, or some foolish thought similar to it.’ ”

The legendary trumpeter spent a lot of time in L.A., and helped to open the West Coast arm of the Cotton Club — which was on Washington Boulevard in Culver City — as “Louis Armstrong and his New Sebastian Cotton Club Orchestra.”

On November 14, 1930, Armstrong and his drummer, Vic Berton, snuck out between sets to the parking lot of the Cotton Club to smoke a joint. Recalls Armstrong (as quoted in Pops):

While Vic and I were blasting this joint, having lots of laughs and feelin’ good, enjoying each other’s fine company, we were standing in this great big lot in front of some cars. Just then, two big, healthy dicks (detectives, that is) come from behind a car, man, nonchalantly, and say to us, “We’ll take the roach, boys.” Mmmm! Vic and I said nothin’. So one dick stayed with me until I went into the club and did my last show. He enjoyed it, too.

Teachout writes that the bust happened because another local bandleader was jealous of Armstrong and tipped off the cops that he was smoking the joint. The trumpeter spent the night in jail. Ultimately Armstrong was sentenced to 30 days but ended up with a modified sentence that wouldn’t interfere with his working hours.

—Randall Roberts

Up & Away With Above & Beyond
The members of British trance group Above & Beyond had just returned home after a U.S. tour when they were essentially summoned back to L.A. Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s foray into “suborbital space travel,” was about to unveil SpaceShipTwo and the company wanted to use the group’s club hit “Buzz,” centered around a sample of Buzz Aldrin, to score the event. On top of that, they wanted the group to deejay the launch party out in the Mojave Desert.

West Coast Sound caught up with Above & Beyond’s Jono Grant via phone from LAX, as the band prepared to head back to the U.K. Below is his recollection of a whirlwind trip that includes a space shuttle, a desert storm and catching a ride from Sir Richard himself.

“We went up [to the Mojave Desert] in the late afternoon and when we got out there, it was so windy. It was really, really cold out there. Luckily, they supplied us with jackets and hats.

“First of all, there was a press conference, where Richard Branson spoke. After that, they did the unveiling of the spaceship, which was when they played our track. It was really loud, which was great, and everyone seemed to like it. They were probably watching the spaceship more than listening to the music, but I think that added to the atmosphere.

“[The spaceship] looks like a stretched plane, in a way. It’s incredible. The team of people who made it were also introduced in the conference. It was pretty spectacular. I find getting into a Boeing 747 and taking off to be pretty amazing. It amazes me to do that, but going into space? It has a special feature where the wings kind of stick out so that it can go back into the Earth’s atmosphere without any problem. It’s pretty cool. It’s the forefront of innovation.

“After that, I did a DJ set for about two-and-a-half hours, while people were sipping cocktails and stuff. One of the great things about that was that I had a few older people come up and ask, ‘What’s this music? I really like it.’ It’s kind of nice to play to a different audience.

“A major storm came into the desert and they had to evacuate the tent. That was quite dramatic. I had never seen anything like it, really. It blew down the tent they’d just had the press conference in and it rolled across the tarmac. We got into Richard Branson’s Winnebago and were driven to the motel to the Virgin after party there. It was great to meet Richard Branson as well. He’s a really great guy. It’s amazing to be part of something forward-thinking like that. We’re very lucky to have been involved.”

Above & Beyond returns to L.A. on New Year’s Eve for GIANT Hotel at the Bonaventure.

—Liz Ohanesian

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