November 1999 By Nat Hentoff
Bix Beiderbecke and the First Amendment
One of Louis Armstrong’s fondest memories was of after-hours sessions at the Sunset Café in Chicago. When the last customers had left, the musicians locked the doors and jammed. One of them was Bix Beiderbecke. “You take a man with a pure tone like Bix’s,” Louis said of one of his favorite hornmen, “and no matter how loud the other fellows may be blowing, that pure tone will cut through it all.”
Louis and Bix had another common interest besides jazz. Both found marijuana a delightful companion. It was not illegal then. Prohibition of marijuana began in 1937. But the tide is slightly changing away from prohibition. The voters of the state of Washington voted last year to approve its use for medical purposes, and soon residents of the District of Columbia will have a chance to vote on a medical marijuana initiative.
In Bix’s birthplace, Davenport, Iowa, however, you can still get busted for possession of pot. And even for mentioning it in a flyer. Every year in Davenport, there is a Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Street Festival. Last July, James and Melissa Getman—fans of Bix and opposed to marijuana prohibition—tried to distribute a flyer, “Bix Smokes,” at the Bix Street Festival, part of the Beiderbecke Memorial.
A cop forcibly seized a stack of flyers from the Getmans and told them they’d be arrested for trespass if they persisted in their scandalous ways. The flyer quoted a section from Ralph Berton’s classic book, Remembering Bix (Harper & Row, 1974), showing Bix’s more than passing acquaintance with muggles: “‘We got the mixings,’ Bix said before the gig. ‘A couple of quarts of gin and a package of muggles.’
‘It’s enough to start,’ said Gene Fosdick, a sideman.”
Defending James and Melissa Getman, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union marched into federal court. Their arguments were as clear and penetrating as a Bix solo. First, “plaintiffs rights of expressive freedom under the First Amendment are being abridged.” And, Iowa’s own Constitution is even more forceful in protecting free speech than the federal Constitution.
Article I, Section 7 of the Iowa Constitution: “Every person may speak, write, and publish his own sentiments on all subjects...No Law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech, or of the press.” (Emphasis added)
Therefore, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union told the judge: “Article I, Section 7 protects the plaintiffs’ rights to speak freely in public streets, sidewalks and common areas frequented by the public in conjunction with civic celebrations such as the Bix Festivals.” Federal District Judge Charles Wolle—a jurist who knows that all of our rights and liberties flow from the right to speak and therefore think freely— ruled that Davenport had to allow the Getmans to distribute 1,000 flyers during the Bix Street Festival. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union plans to get a permanent injunction against censorship of not only “Bix Smokes” but also of any other leaflets that participants at future festivals want to distribute. Said the judge: “The defendants have not shown they or the public will be harmed by the plaintiffs’ intended activity.”
Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, told Phillip Taylor of the Freedom Forum—which regularly reports attacks on the First Amendment—that “because people tried to censor James and Melissa Getman, even more people now know about Bix Beiderbecke smoking marijuana.” Stone added that this attempt to suppress the flyer—including tearing copies out of the hands of the Getmans—shows that the war on drugs has created “a frantic attitude about drugs. Here we have a city government threatening to arrest people just for wanting to inform their fellow citizens about the wisdom or effectiveness of marijuana prohibition. Such government censorship must be stopped or else no one will be safe to express their views on
anything—if people in government don’t like it.”
It should be noted, by the way, that unlike Bill Clinton, Bix and Louis did inhale. In Joshua Berrett’s The Louis Armstrong Companion (Schirmer Books, 1999), Louis says of the controversial weed: “It’s a thousand times better than whiskey. It’s an assistant, a friend...Good (very good) for asthma, relaxes your nerves...Much different from dope fiends...jabbing themselves in the ass with a needle...Myself, I’ve always had a sane mind from the day I was born.”
Originally published in November 1999