Rufus Harley, “the world’s first jazz bagpiper”, was born on May 20, 1936 near Raleigh, N.C. but grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia where his family moved when he was two years of age. He started playing the C melody saxophone and trumpet at age 12. In his later teens he worked as a paper boy to raise enough money to buy a tenor saxophone so that he can play in the high school band but at age 16 he dropped out of school and worked odd jobs to help support his family. He continued, however, to take music lessons on the saxophone, oboe, clarinet and flute from Dennis Sandole, a Philadelphia area guitarist and music teacher. He made his professional debut in Mickey Collins’ band at age 18 at a local jazz club. He continued to play the tenor saxophone at local clubs for several years until he took up the bagpipes.
His lifelong interest in bagpipes started on November 22 1963 when he watched the Scottish infantry bagpipers; the Black Watch play at President Kennedy’s funeral. He was greatly moved by the mournful sound of the instrument but failed to recreate it on the different reed instruments he was familiar with. He called around and was unable to locate a set of bagpipes until he found one, during a New York City visit, at a pawnshop. He acquired the set for $120 and several months later he started playing it at a night club in West Philadelphia called Squeaky’s. His immense musical talent made the unwieldy instrument much more than a curiosity in his hands. A home demo recording was sent to Atlantic records and Joel Dorn, the producer there at the time offered him a contract. He recorded four albums as a leader for Atlantic including his debut Bagpipe Blues. Over the course of those four records and several appearances as side musician he adapted the bagpipes to different genres of improvisational music starting with hard bop and soul jazz and moving towards more spiritual jazz- funk. His masterpiece Re-Creation of the Gods was recorded in 1972 and it was the last session he would lead until the late 1990s.
Through out his life he continued to perform regularly in Philadelphia clubs, appear on TV shows and films and tour both the US and Europe. During his European tours he was famous for giving out miniaturized replicas of the Liberty Bell, copies of the Constitution and American flags.