Clip: Rufus Harley, 70, Dies; Adapted Bagpipes to Jazz
- Herbie Mann also employed Sonny Sharrock; this description of how
Harley used his instrument reminds me a little of Sharrock's approach.
Rufus Harley, 70, Dies; Adapted Bagpipes to Jazz
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: August 13, 2006
Rufus Harley, who was billed as "the world's first jazz bagpiper" and
emitted his haunting sounds alongside some of the greats of jazz, died
on Aug. 1 in Philadelphia, his hometown. He was 70.
The cause was prostate cancer, his son Messiah Patton Harley said.
Although Mr. Harley fully acknowledged that "everybody thought I was
crazy" when he turned to bagpipes in the early 1960's, he became a
frequent sideman on records and in concerts with saxophonists like
Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, with the
trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and with the flutist Herbie Mann.
"He adapted the bagpipes to jazz, blues, funk and other typically
African-American styles, while also acknowledging the instrument's
Scottish roots," said David Badagnani, an instructor at the Center for
the Study of World Musics at Kent State University.
Mr. Harley, who was 6-foot-2, was of African-American and Cherokee
descent; he sometimes performed in Scottish kilts, sometimes in a
dashiki and a Nigerian kufi, or skull cap.
In 1967 a New York Times review of a concert given by Mr. Mann, with
Mr. Harley by his side, said that the bagpipe's tones "sounded far
more Middle Eastern than Scottish," and that when combined with the
flute, "the two wind instruments blended into an eerily swinging
Rufus Harley Jr. was born on May 20, 1936, outside of Raleigh, N.C.
His family moved to a poor neighborhood in North Philadelphia when he
was 2. He is survived by 16 children and 15 grandchildren. He and his
wife, Barbara Jean Jones, separated many years ago.
As a teenager, Mr. Harley sold newspapers to buy a saxophone so he
could play in his high school band. At 16 he dropped out of school and
worked at odd jobs to help support his family. But he never lost
interest in music. For 10 years he took lessons on the saxophone,
oboe, trumpet and flute and played in local jazz clubs.
The turning point came in November 1963, as Mr. Harley watched the
funeral procession for President John F. Kennedy on television and was
taken by the wailing sound of the Black Watch bagpipe band. He tried,
unsuccessfully, to reproduce the sound on his saxophone.
"My dad was playing a lot of tenor sax then," his son Messiah said,
"but because Coltrane and Rollins were smoking the sax, that's why he
turned to the bagpipes."
A friend who knew of Mr. Harley's interest spotted a used bagpipe in a
pawnshop and, after a quick phone call, covered its $120 price. After
months of practice, Mr. Harley was working in local clubs, and his
unusual talent gained wider attention.
From 1965 to 1970, Mr. Harley was the lead artist on four albums on
the Atlantic label. He began making appearances on television shows,
including "To Tell the Truth," "What's My Line?" "I've Got a Secret, "
Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and Bill Cosby's "Cosby Show." He
accompanied the singer Laurie Anderson on her 1982 album "Big
Science." And in 1995 he worked with the hip-hop band the Roots on its
album "Do You Want More?!!!??!"
All the while, Mr. Harley insisted that the bagpipe had African roots
and that his chosen instrument had helped him "discover my identity by
making me aware of my cultural heritage."
In fact, Mr. Badagnani at Kent State noted, "there are double-pipe
instruments in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo that
resemble a bagpipe."