Cannabis has become an integral part of American culture as of late, but if you experienced the prohibition era first hand, you know that wasn't always the case. Before then, though, cannabis use, like most cultural phenomena, was popularized in America by people of color. In fact, cannabis use started the jazz movement.
As we've talked about in the past, cannabis history and black history are intertwined. The two share a complex relationship with slavery, colonization, and criminalization. Cannabis was adopted recreationally by Mexicans fleeing the Mexican revolution as well as American slaves who were introduced to it through the slave trade. Then, as Jamaican immigrants arrived in the early 20th century and created their own cultural districts in New Orleans, jazz was officially born.
Cannabis serves as a conduit for creativity and on-the-fly music production and performance. Back in the 1920s and 30s, the first signs of cannabis culture were developing in black communities using slang. They sold joints outside of cannabis bars or "tea pads", where musicians would get together and smoke "tea" or "grass" or "reefer". Since cannabis was being vilified at the time and on the cusp of criminalization, they'd use code and sing tribute songs about it.
Take Cab Calloway, for example. He was a regular who frequented New York City's famous Cotton Club and sang about cannabis often. One of his songs, "Reefer Man", includes the lines "If he trades you dimes for nickels / And calls watermelons pickles / Then you know you're talking to the reefer man." Later, Trixie Smith, a blues singer, recorded the iconic "Jack, I'm Mellow" tribute to cannabis. There's a good chance you heard that one in the intro to Netflix's show "Disjointed."
Outside of a song here and there was an entire culture. Jazz musicians who smoked cannabis were called "vipers" after the hissing sound made when they inhaled smoke sharply. Louis Armstrong, one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, was a viper himself. He called cannabis "the gage" and tried it for the first time in the 1920s, using it throughout his career before both performances and recordings.
As a famous American figure, Armstrong kept his cannabis use on the private side, though. It was rumored that he used cannabis, but he didn't officially open up about it until he was interviewed for his biography by Max Jones near the end of his life. However, as prohibition took hold, he explained that he had to give it up.