Rufus Harley: Jazz Bagpiper


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1936 - 2006

Last night WRTI-FM's Bob Perkins announced the death of an Philly original. Rufus Harley is credited as the first jazz musician to pick the Scottish bagpipes as his instrument.

You might have heard his distinctive drone on CDs by The Roots (Do You Want More?!!!??!) and Laurie Anderson (Big Science). If you ever saw a picture of him, it would stick. He cut a distinctive swath.

So did his music.

I talked to his son, Messiah Harley, the trumpeter, this morning. He said his father had prostate cancer, but never let on to anyone that he was hurting.

“He was a soldier," the son said. “I have no other way to explain it. He never let his sickness stop him from playing, and from making people happy. He was always concerned about the people."

Messiah Harley said he drove his father to Germantown Hospital Monday evening--a few hours after his last show. Doctors transferred him to Einstein, his son said, when it was apparent he was so sick.

“All he was talking about was, 'Messiah, come and get me. I have a gig to get to in Baltimore.' He tried to sit up and his heart stopped." Funeral arrangements are pending, his son said.

Shaun Mullen at Kiko's House wrote this last night about Harley, who was 70:

Jazz bagpipes would seem to be an acquired taste, but I fell into Harley's funky style immediately and he became a lifelong favorite whom I caught several times at Ortleib's Brewhaus in Philadelphia.

A 2001 profile in the City Paper described what moved the Germantown resident to pick up the pipes:

In November 1963, the winter of America's discontent, a young Philadelphia musician named Rufus Harley watched John F. Kennedy's funeral on television. While a nation mourned, the sound of the bagpipes from the funeral procession sent Harley's spirits soaring.

He attempted to replicate the sound on his sax; unsatisfied, he scoured the area for a set of bagpipes. He called around to every music store in the region, but couldn't score them. It wasn't until he made his first-ever trip to New York City that he found his pipes. In a small pawnshop he spent $120, that month's entire mortgage money, and altered the course of jazz forever.

He was born in North Carolina in 1936, of African-American and Cherokee heritage. He moved to Philadelphia as a small boy. In high school he played up several wind instruments. He recorded several albums on the Atlantic label, Scotch & Soul the first to command critical notice. You haven't lived until you've heard Harley's cover of the Byrds' “Eight Miles High." An evocative description of his work here.

Once asked how to play the jazz bagpipes, Harley answered:

You play off the air that's in there.

Photo Credit
C. Andre Hovan

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