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.