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Thursday, August 03, 2006

R.I.P. Rufus Harley, Jazz Bagpiper

Rufusharley Last night WRTI-FM's Bob Perkins announced the death of a 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.

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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.

Joel Dorn, the jazz producer, was a Philly DJ at WHAT between 1961 and 1967. By phone today, he recalled one day when Rufus Harley called, hoping to get his attention:

"He said he was a local musician who played jazz on the bagpipes, he made a record, and would I listen to it. I said, 'Sure.' He came by the radio station with a acetate, a little metal record you could 10 or 12 plays out of, and he played me "The Bagpipe Blues." I loved it. ... It swung."

Dorn recorded an album with Harley, which included that track, for Atlantic Records. It sold so well, Dorn says, that label founder Nesuhi Ertegun called the part-time producer to New York and offered him a full-time job. Dorn wound up producing four albums for Harley at Atlantic.

"There are a couple of things about Rufus," Dorn said. "First of all, he was a good musician -- a good tenor player, a good flute player, a good composer. More than anything, he was a sweet guy. He didn't have any bad bones. He was totally committed to his work on the bagpipes and he took a lot of heat for it. For every Sonny Rollins or Sonny Stitt who recorded with him, there were always those snotty jazz critics who looked down on anything left of center."

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. You haven't lived until you've heard Harley's cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High." An evocative description of his work can be found here. H. Songhai recalls a memorable gig with Harley here.

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

You play off the air that's in there.

"He was a relentless player and a studier," Bob Perkins said today by phone. "He would go anywhere and play anywhere. He traveled overseas extensively. He's take his own version of the Liberty Bell to see different people in different countries. I guess he should have lived there. Maybe they would have appreciated him more."

I called Harley's son back this afternoon - to see about mentioning survivors and what arrangements had been made. No one answered. Instead, I got bagpipes - glorious bagpipes, swelling to life - then a hale voice, announcing, "You have reached Rufus Harley, the International Ambassador and Messenger of Freedom." He plays on.

Posted by Daniel Rubin at 09:39 AM in Music

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