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When you picture a jazz musician, you’re probably picturing someone holding a saxophone or trumpet, sitting by a piano or behind a drum set, or maybe slinging a guitar or leaning on an upfront basis.

You probably don’t think of a Highland Bagpiper.

And yet, in the mid-1960s, jazz bagpipes had a place in the public eye, thanks to the talents of Rufus Harley – along with a public taste for novelty.

The ballad of Rufus Harley

Rufus Harley was born in North Carolina in 1936 but soon moved to North Philadelphia, picking up the saxophone from age 12. As a young adult, he continued playing but was working as a maintenance worker for the city when his life as a piper started.

In late-1963, Harley watched the funeral of John F. Kennedy, along with the rest of the world, complete with marching pipers from the US Air Force. Struck by the sound of the instrument, Harley rag around pawn shops in Philly and New York to find one with a set of pipes.

He picked up a set from a New York pawnbroker for $120, tried them for a day, returned them, but had a change of heart as he left the shop a second time, and took them back again. Within six months he had what he felt was a handle on the instrument.

Jazz adrift in the Atlantic

Harley’s story might have ended there, if not for a changing of the guard in the Jazz division of the Atlantic record label.

Co-founded by Turkish immigrant Ahmet Urtegen, Atlantic is best known for its impact on 1960’s soul music, with a roster that boasted Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Picket, among others.

However, the label also had some incredibly strong jazz artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s, releasing several albums that grace many a top-10 list of jazz albums. These included John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and My Favourite Things, as well as Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Free Jazz. Alongside Coltrane and Coleman, Atlantic hosted other hard-hitting artists including Joe Zawinul, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Mingus.

Most of these acts were recorded under the supervision of Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi Ertegun, who looked after the label’s jazz catalog. In the early 19690’s however, Nesuhi was moving his focus to other areas of the business and gave a fella called Joel Dorn his job.

Dorn was an ex-radio DJ and was keen on stretching out on more left-of-field acts. He felt that just as Blue Note was the home of hard and post-bop, Atlantic Jazz would be the home of the experimental and avant-garde.

It’s with this mindset that Rufus Harley secured his first recording contract as a jazz bagpiper.

Success and critical confusion

You’d be justified in doubting Dorn’s judgment with his decision to sign Harley, but to Dorn’s credit, Harley was relatively successful. Dorn has said in an interview that Harley’s first record – Bagpipe Blues – sold five or six thousand records, a big deal for a debut jazz act.

Harley would go on to record another three albums with Atlantic, Scotch & Soul, A Tribute to Courage, and King/Queens. A Tribute to Courage even made it to 32 on the Billboard jazz chart. Alongside touring, Harley appeared on a series of TV shows, with the public lapping up his accessible combination of originals and pop covers, while getting off on the novelty.

Critics, on the other hand, told a different story. They weren’t so much critical as they were confused. Critic Stanley Dance called Harley “a good gimmick by the decade’s standards”, referring in part to the full highland outfit Harley was photographed in for the liner notes of Bagpipe Blues.

Stanley further said it was “A mercy that the pipes are heard on just three of the seven numbers”, with the other four tracks featuring Harley’s saxophone playing.

Elsewhere, Harley’s music was called “screeching, barbarous and provocative”. Melody Maker said of Harley “He manages to play jazz on [the bagpipes]. Not the greatest jazz you ever heard, but unmistakably jazz”.

‘Legit’ jazz instruments

Non-traditional jazz instruments have often had a hard time getting critical acclaim. In some cases, there’s a reason – for example, pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons’ recorded several jazz albums in his life, including a team-up with Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau. However, the PSG didn’t really suit the jazz aesthetic, and Emmons quickly returned to his country roots in every case.

Another example of a non-traditional instrument choice softening a career is found in the painfully underappreciated jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby. Ashby put out a series of excellent records through the 1960s, many also featuring her skills as a singer. Ashby had the triple disadvantage of playing a non-traditional jazz instrument, being black, and being a woman, which perhaps made her a difficult sell. In any case, it’s criminal she hasn’t been properly acknowledged in modern times.

However, there are plenty of occasions that instruments, otherwise considered a novelty, find a home in the hands of a truly skilled player. The harmonica is an excellent example, first thanks to the skills of Belgian guitarist-turned-harmonica player Toots Thielemans, then later the Swiss-born Gregoire Maret. Both players proved the chromatic harmonica could be a legitimate if specialised, jazz instrument (of course, Stevie Wonder played a part as well).

Another woodwind player on the edges of legitimacy was Herbie Mann, also an Atlantic artist, who was a highly skilled and generally lauded jazz flautist. Of course, many saxophone players double on flute, but it could be reasonably questioned whether or not that would be the case without Mann and his contemporaries.

Why not bagpipes?

So why didn’t Rufus Harley do for the pipes what Mann did for the flute? It’s hard to know for sure, but I have a few theories.

For starters, he wasn’t a previously known jazz player. Toots Thielemans played guitar, while Herbie Mann played the saxophone before focusing on flute. Joe Zawinul, while respected as a synthesizer player in the 70’s and 80’s, was best known as a piano player in the 1960’s.

Rufus Harley did play the saxophone fairly well before he played the Highland Bagpipes, but his debut record was very clearly selling him as a Bagpiper first, even if the pipes were featured on a minority of tracks on the album.

The next problem Harley faced was that the pipes simply aren’t well equipped for the vocabulary of jazz. Jazz is a heavily chromatic language and requires some melodic flexibility to pull off properly. Great Highland Bagpipes only have 7 of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Two are doubled in a higher octave, leaving Harley with just 9 notes to work with. The result is a very limited vocabulary, the lack of which is very obvious when you listen. On top of that, Harley’s bagpipes featured Bb and F drone pipes, which played constantly. That effectively locked him into playing in either Bb major or G minor.

The bagpipes are also extremely difficult to tune while playing, with no mouthpiece to change the air-flow in real-time (the air comes from a bag held in the crook of the elbow). This isn’t a problem for a lone-piper, or even in a large pipe band, but not alongside traditionally tuned instruments in a small jazz ensemble.

Sitting in with Sonny

The closest Rufus Harley came to ‘legitimate’ jazz was when he went on tour with Sonny Rollins in the early 1970s. Harley would play the pipes occasionally but doubled on saxophone for most of the live set.

Perhaps the one Rufus Harley worth listening to comes from a Sonny Rollins live album recorded during this period, The Cutting Edge. Harley plays pipes on a rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. It’s the best example of jazz bagpipes I could find, at least partly due to the fact that Harley isn’t playing the entire time. On this cut, Harley truly adds something to the ensemble, rather than being little more than a novelty.

Unfortunately, while his bagpipes found a temporary place on The Cutting Edge, he was ultimately left on Sonny’s cutting room floor. Sonny said of Harley “I didn’t really get a sense that the bagpipe would be something which would find a place in the normal jazz group”.

Bagpipes today

Harley lived through to 2006, recording music until shortly before his death. He traveled occasionally, but generally remained defined by his novelty, rather than any lingering impact on music.

But with Harley lost to us, are jazz bagpipes having a resurgence?

Unfortunately… or thankfully… no. Perhaps due to its novel debut, it’s melodic inflexibility or an inherent mismatch between the double reeded, vaguely ethnic sound of the bagpipes and the aesthetics of modern jazz. Perhaps a more serious acolyte to Harley could have made an impact – John Coltrane reportedly owned a set of pipes, but never got to the point of actually playing them for an audience.

As far as modern bagpipe players go, there aren’t any, at least not in jazz. The experimental jazz musician David Watson plays bagpipes occasionally, and his pipe-centric album Skirl is worth a listen, but I wouldn’t consider it jazz, as such. Swedish performer Gunhild Carling plays bagpipes in a swing style, but her performances are probably better described as cabaret than traditional jazz.

Listening ahead

If nothing else, the story of Rufus Harley reminds us to stay curious, and open our minds to changes in the way we do things, be it music or otherwise. Harley may not have hit jazz pay dirt with his pipes, but that’s not to say the next non-traditional player won’t.

As for the current state of bagpipe jazz, beyond the recommendations I made above nothing I’ve listened to will see regular rotation in my home. But as with all things – your mileage may vary. The next jazz bagpipe messiah could be just one inspirational record away.

Props to the essay that inspired this article and video, “Slightly Left of Centre – Atlantic Records and the Problems of Genre” by Daniel Goldmark. You’ll find it in Jazz/Not Jazz (Chapter 7) available here: