Rufus Harley - August 2006

Earle Hitchner at the Celtic Cafe

Rufus Harley

Piping Down the Valley Wild


By Earle Hitchner

Published on August 30, 2006, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City.
Copyright (c) Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.

You won't find Rufus Harley in any book on Irish or other Celtic music. Nor will you find him listed in most jazz encyclopedias. And even there, he usually gets short shrift.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, for example, gives him just nine single-column lines in its 1,358 double-column pages. Gary Giddins, the best writer about jazz and my idol among all active music scribes, makes no mention of him in his 690-page Visions of Jazz or in his 632-page Weather Bird.

Yet Rufus Harley was one of the most imaginative, innovative, and benevolently eccentric bagpipers who ever lived. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, and a resident of Philadelphia since age two, he was an anomaly: an African-American saxophonist, trumpeter, flutist, clarinetist, and oboist who began learning and playing the bagpipes as his principal jazz instrument at the relatively advanced age of 27. In concert, this mustachioed, six-foot-two piper often wore a kilt, woolen or crocheted cap, argyle knee socks, and tartan given to him by the MacLeod clan. Other times his appearance in red, white, and blue dashiki and headband would have given another native North Carolinian, George Clinton of Parliament and Funkadelic fame, a sartorial run for his money.

At age 70, Rufus Harley died from prostate cancer in Philadelphia on August 1, 2006, and to my mind and taste he deserves attention greater than he received from the press both before and after his death.

While a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania many years ago, I was fortunate to catch Harley in a West Philadelphia performance. At the time, my knowledge of and appreciation for Celtic acoustic instrumentation were limited, so I couldn't fully understand Harley's jazz iconoclasm set against the long piping tradition in Scotland and Ireland. But I recognized the sizable talent fueling his musical experimentation, and though not everything he performed thrilled me, I was mesmerized by the spectacle, skill, and passion of his piping.

Harley's interest in the bagpipes began with watching on TV the funeral procession for assassinated Irish-American President John F. Kennedy in Nov. 1963. He was fascinated with the bagpipes' sound and tried to graft it onto the saxophone, his main instrument, which he had been playing since age 12. When he discovered the bagpipes' sound could not be duplicated or approximated on sax, he obtained a set for $120 from a Manhattan pawnshop. Later, he would replace that set of bagpipes with one he bought for about $1,000.

In 1964 Harley started to give jazz concerts on bagpipes, and initially he was greeted with far more skepticism than support by audiences and critics, many of whom regarded his piping as a novelty, gimmick, fad, or freak of nature. But Harley kept his sense of humor as he struggled to break down racial, ethnomusicological, and genre walls surrounding the idea of an African American playing jazz on bagpipes.

Practicing his piping in his apartment sometimes brought out the police in response to neighbors' complaints. Harley reportedly had his own response ready for the police at his front door: "Do I look like I'm Irish or Scottish to you?"

Five years ago he summarized for Andrew Ervin, a journalist for Philadelphia 's City Paper, his idiosyncratic viewpoint on playing bagpipes in jazz.

"The drone uses the ancient vibrations of the universe," Harley explained to Ervin. "Bagpipes represent the ultimate sound of philosophy because it sustains. It brings the yin and yang together, the male and female. The human anatomy is the original instrument. When people first came to America, they brought their instruments with them: their bodies. Now it's time for people to understand that we got to get our asses in tune."

Rufus Harley loved the promise implicit in America 's Constitution and Declaration of Independence as well as in Philadelphia, the Cradle of Liberty, which he also called the "City of Brotherly and Motherly Love." He often handed out miniatures of the Liberty Bell to those he met. Rufus Harley anticipated the message of this refrain sung by Elvis Costello: "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"

As a recording artist, Harley amassed a fairly small discography. Among his solo albums was his 1966 debut, "Bagpipe Blues," followed by "Scotch and Soul" in 1967 and "A Tribute to Courage" in 1968.

Harley also guested on saxophonist Sonny Stitt's "Deuces Wild" and flutist Herbie Mann's "The Wailing Dervishes" albums in 1967, Laurie Anderson's "Big Science" album in 1982, and the Roots' "Do You Want More?!!!??!" album in 1995.

But for me his most impressive collaboration was with Sonny Rollins, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists in history. On Rollins's underrated "The Cutting Edge" recording in 1974, he and Harley swung beautifully on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," a traditional spiritual, where the interplay between horn and pipes was riveting.

Harley, however, still earned scant respect. In The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, journalist Paul Evans doesn't acknowledge Rufus Harley's key contribution to that track. Instead, Evans praises Rollins for how "he asserts himself on the live Montreux performance of 'The Cutting Edge' with, of all things, a duet with bagpipe on 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.'" Did Evans think the bagpipes played themselves there?

Harley's appearances on TV game and talk shows stirred the public's curiosity about him and his music. But the distinction of being the first jazz bagpiper or, as Andrew Ervin more accurately put it, "the only real pied piper of jazz" didn't result in a steady stream of lucrative gigs. Like a number of Irish traditional musicians, Harley worked a day job for many years - in his case, with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Nevertheless, Rufus Harley contentedly soldiered on and continued to draw artistic fulfillment from playing the pipes.

A music critic for the New York Times once myopically described the sound of the bagpipes as "military or mournful." Perhaps he had witnessed too many parades, corteges, and burials where bagpipers only played marches, slow airs, or "Amazing Grace."

There is a host of Irish, Scottish, Northumbrian, Breton, and Galician bagpipers who could easily disprove that reductive "military or mournful" statement. To that list of piping visionaries and luminaries, add the name of Rufus Harley, an oft-overlooked musical maverick who recognized the improvisational potential of an instrument previously alien to jazz. With his breath and fingers, he made a joyful noise.

Author: Earle Hitchner

Continuing Story

Rufus Harley

Photo property of Tony Wild of Hip Wax. Used by permission.