Rufus Harley: America’s First Kilted Jazz Bagpiper

© Blue Cat

Recently I was in the studios of Atlanta’s radio station WABE 90.1 in full kilt gear, preparing to do an interview about Tartan Day and Kilt Con 2017. While waiting to go to the “City Lights” recording studio, I met H. Johnson, the station’s jazz expert and host of “Jazz Classics” and “Blues Classics.” He took a look at my kilt and asked me if I was familiar with the jazz musician Rufus Harley. Now, even though I’m a long-time jazz lover, I had to admit I was unfamiliar with Rufus Harley. “He was the first jazz bagpiper,” Johnson said. “He performed in a kilt. You should look him up.” Well, of course I had to do just that and soon discovered the fascinating story of jazz bagpiper, Rufus Harley.

Rufus Harley was born of mixed African-American and Cherokee descent in North Carolina on May 20, 1936 and not long afterward, his family moved to Philadelphia. While in high school, Rufus sold newspapers so he could purchase his first saxophone and eventually started playing sax and oboe in the local Philadelphia jazz clubs.

In 1963, while watching the Black Watch Pipe Band play at President Kennedy’s funeral, he found himself inspired to learn the bagpipes after unsuccessfully trying to mimic the bagpipe sound on his saxophone. Harley searched several local pawn shops for a decent set of bagpipes and finally found a set in New York City for $120. During his learning period, neighbors would call the police about the noice coming from Harley’s apartment. Harley would ask the cops, “Do I look like I’m Irish or Scottish?” keeping the police officers away long enough for him to learn the instrument. In 1964 Harley made his first public appearance playing his bagpipes.

Over the course of his career, Rufus Harley played with artists such as John Coltrane, Herbie Mann, Sonny Stitt, Dizzie Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Laurie Anderson and The Roots. He began making appearances in the 60s and 70s 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.” It was said that his bagpipes technique was unorthodox in that he played with the drones over his right shoulder rather than his left.

Rufus Harley regularly played wearing a kilt and at one point, a Scottish family presented him with his tartan, the MacLeod tartan, after seeing him on television. Harley wore that tartan for the rest of his life.

Rufus Harley died of prostate cancer on August 1, 2006 in Philadelphia at the age of 70.

—Rick Baldwin

20 Questions with Cooper McBean

Cooper McBean

Photo by Giles Clement.

Cooper McBean is guitarist and banjo player for The Devil Makes Three which, along with guitarist Pete Bernhard and upright bassist Lucia Turino, has become one of music’s more reliable and successful touring bands. Mixing bluegrass, rock, country, jazz and blues, the band continues to attract a diverse audience willing to support them in their exploration of sounds and styles. Life In A Kilt caught up with Cooper a few days before the release of “Redemption & Ruin,” the seventh album from The Devil Makes Three and we tossed out a few questions. 

LIAK: You’ve been performing with The Devil Makes Three for almost 15 years. How do you keep everything artistically and creatively fresh?

CMcB: We are always working on something new, and in between always, we try to mess with old things until they are new again.

LIAKTell us about the upcoming release, Redemption and Ruin.

CMcB: Redemption and Ruin is sort of a concept record. It’s all covers of our heroes, half songs about ruining your life, and half gospel songs about putting it back together.

LIAKThe name “McBean” certainly has a deep presence in Scottish lore. Have you ever researched the history of clan MacBean? Do you feel a connection with your Celtic heritage?

CMcB: The McBeans (or MacBeathains if you want to get down to the nuts and bolts) were a small Highland clan who were eventually lumped in with Clan Chattan. Our bass player Lucia is a MacLeish, so we are allies from way back.

LIAKHave you ever owned or worn a kilt?

CMcB: I have never owned a kilt myself, but many of the guys in my family do, though they mostly only come out for weddings and funerals.

LIAKEarly TDM3 albums were often categorized as “bluegrass” but the band seems to feel it is more “rock” than “bluegrass.” I think I heard one of you once describe TDM3 as an “American version of The Pogues.” Is that an accurate description?

CMcB: I’ve never been able to come up with a description for our music that I felt was just right. I think that we share an irreverent love for traditional music with The Pogues, so in that sense I suppose it fits.

LIAKWhat is your favorite beer?

CMcB: I’m a big fan of Lagunitas Daytime right now.

LIAKFor those not familiar with your other band, Cooper McBean and Vested Interest, tell us about the band’s history and why you decided to start another band?

CMcB: The Vested Interests was a side project I started with some friends to stay busy between tours, and to play songs that didn’t make the cut for The Devil Makes Three.

LIAKMany bands couldn’t survive 15 years with the same members. How do you three spend so much time together without wanting to punch each other out?

CMcB: Wanting to punch somebody, and actually doing it are two different things. We’ve had our disagreements over the years, but it has never come to blows. We’re all very old friends, so we’ve figured out ways to reconcile our differences.

LIAKHow would you describe each personality in the band?

CMcB: Stinky, Ugly, and Loud. I’ll leave it up to the readers to figure out who’s who.

LIAKWho is your favorite tattoo artist and how often do you update your ink?

CMcB: My fiancee is a tattooer, so she’s definitely my favorite. She thinks I’m a giant sissy for not getting tattooed more often.

LIAKWhat song do you think would be much better with the addition of banjo?

CMcB: I just played for a band called Miss Lonely Hearts on their new record. We did a cover of Breaking The Law by Judas Priest. Banjo was a real improvement.

LIAKIn addition to being a master musician, you are also an accomplished leatherworker. How did you get into that art form?

CMcB: I have a list of hobbies at least 400 miles long. Leather working is just one of them.

LIAKI can imagine several Life In A Kilt readers drooling at the thought of a custom-made Cooper McBean kilt sporran. Do you take custom orders?

CMcB: I have a pretty insane waiting list right now for leather work, but I’m always up for a new challenge!

LIAKWhat classic artist has influenced you the most and what contemporary artist inspires you the most?

CMcB: Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis were two of my biggest influences when I was first discovering folk music. Does Kris Kristofferson count as contemporary? ‘Cause that dude is TOPS.

LIAKWould you prefer a sturdy pair of boots or good pair of sandals?

CMcB: Boots all the way, although I’m wearing sandals now…

LIAKWhat is your preferred social media outlet to keep up with family and fans?

CMcB: I have an Instagram account, but that’s it. I’m not super big on the whole social media thing.

LIAK:I counted several marriage proposals on one of your social media accounts. Have you ever dated or married a fan from the Internet?

CMcB: I’ve never dated ANYBODY from the internet. Have you even heard how people talk there?

LIAKDescribe your ideal tour.

CMcB: The next one!

LIAKOf the instruments you own, which is your favorite to play?

CMcB: That changes hour to hour. Today I’ve been playing my Telecaster and my musical saw.

LIAKHave you ever tried to see if you could play banjo better after an entire bottle of scotch?

CMcB: Yes. It didn’t work. But I’ll always give it another try!

Scottish Thunder – Storming Your Castle

Austin, Texas has been home to a 10-gallon-hatful of innovative bands: Butthole Surfers, Spoon, Black Angels, The Dicks, Poi Dog Pondering and 13th Floor Elevators just to name a few. It cultivates an artistic environment that makes musicians explore, take chances and experiment. Even Willie Nelson, the Outlaw Godfather himself, has said, “There’s a freedom you begin to feel the closer you get to Austin, Texas.” It’s the type of city where a self-described “daft bastard” might strap on a kilt, form a “pop-rock-funk-celtic” band and play everything from The Police to The Pogues to Prince. Bassist David Houston knows all-too-well this is true. Because it’s exactly what he did.

“For about three years I was in a pretty popular Austin band called Encore, ” David says. “I wore my kilt and sporran in every show and it became an integral part of the band’s look. A sound engineer who worked with us started labeling my monitor ‘Scottish Thunder.’ He was of Scottish heritage like me. I thought it was hilarious. In 2013, I left Encore and decided I wanted to start my own cover project. I knew I wanted to keep wearing the kilt so Scottish Thunder was the obvious new band name.”

Being rooted in the local music scene for so many years helped David round up some of Austin’s finest to bring Scottish Thunder to life. “I knew (vocalist) Andie (Nelson) and (guitarist) Heath (Allyn) from past gigs and common friends,” David says. “Rob (Scumacher) was only the second drummer I auditioned and we became friends almost immediately. All that came together pretty easily. It’s been the same four of us since gig one and I’m grateful for that.”

David says in the early 90s, most Austin bands were playing original music and most “cover bands” were seen in a negative light. He believes the stigma of being in a cover band is now waning and can pay off. “Some really successful original artists have started their own cover bands,” he says. “The trick is to bring your own unique personality and energy to it.”

“We’re in a ‘Scottish band’ but we don’t sing with heavy brogues or do songs only by Celtic artists,” David says. “Some people may look at our name, Scottish Thunder, and think we’re only doing obscure traditional Celtic music or something. We’re basically a rock band. We shift from rock and pop to full-on funk and R&B. I’ll put down my bass and get out into the crowd to sing. You can see the audience respond to that.”

As the new year rolls in, David expects 2016 to be the band’s biggest year to date. “We’re adding more and more shows all the time,” he says. “We’re bringing in some original music here and there, and even throwing in a guest bagpiper and fiddler on some shows. It adds authenticity to our traditional sounding stuff.”

Some of that traditional music will be showcased in performances outside of rock clubs as the band looks at taking on some Highland festivals and renaissance fair stages. It’s an artistic direction some of today’s bands might find a bit chancy, but no big deal to a band making it a goal to showcase their uniqueness. David Houston keeps it all in perspective. “At the end of the day, we’re just your everyday, ordinary, traditional, Scottish, in-your-face, rock band. That you can dance to.”