Remembering Rufus Harley: The Chief Musician

Musicians remember one-of-a-kind colleague
Tribune Staff Writer
The haunting drones of bagpipes were silenced on August 1st, 2006 when pioneering jazz artist Rufus Harley, 70, died of complications from prostate cancer. Regionally, residents recognized him for the countless funerals and parades he led as the world’s first jazz bagpiper. Globally, he is known for his skills as a world-class musician and tireless ambassador for his city and country.

Harley was on a lifelong spiritually quest that often manifested itself in his presentations of miniature Liberty Bell replicas to dignitaries and blasting his gospel of unity through the international language of music.

“I could hear the sound of the bagpipe through my soul,” said Harley to an earlier interviewer.

Born May 20, 1936 in Raleigh, NC, of African-American and Cherokee descent, Harley was a unique man and longtime Germantown resident.. Harley’s career as a promising young jazz saxophonist and flutist was transformed during the November 1963 funeral of President John F. Kennedy when he heard the solemn sounds of regimental bagpipers of the Black Watch, a Scottish infantry division of the British Army. The continuous sustained and haunting sounds of the instrument intrigued him and he went looking for bagpipes, and finally found a set in a New York pawnshop for $120.

His initial performances on the traditionally Scottish instrument brought a mixed reaction from jazz lovers who had watched him blossom under the tutelage of Dennis Sandole, who also taught several other Philadelphia jazz musicians.

“The bagpipe was sort of a novelty thing that brought him to the attention of the public, but he was a master musician on the other instruments also,” WRTI-FM’s Bob Perkins. “I really appreciated him as a musician,” said the longtime jazz radio host. “He played the saxophone and the flute fabulously.”

“Not only was he a great bagpiper, he was a great musician,” said Lovett Hines, Director of Education Program at the Clef Club. “Rufus could have gone anyplace and he elected to stay here in Philadelphia.

Harley fathered 10 children, including his protégé, trumpeter Messiah Harley 31. “He was a true soldier in terms of making people happy and traveling the world,” recalled Messiah. “He never cried or complained about his situation. He always did the gigs on time.”

The younger Harley recalled how his father prepared him to be a musician at age twelve, when he first started playing trumpet with his father. “The one thing that impressed me with Rufus was his relationship with Messiah, his son,” recalled Hines. During Harley’s last two weeks, father and son spoke every day.

From 1965 to 1970 Harley released several recordings as leader on the Atlantic label, also recording as a sideman with Herbie Mann, Sonny Stitt, and Sonny Rollins in the 1960s and 1970s. During the height of Harley’s career in the late 1960s and early 70s, he traveled the world performing and was a frequent guest on the poplar talk and games shows of the time, including “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” “The Mike Douglas Show and “What’s My Line.

30 years later, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of The Roots saw Harley’s appearance on television and told MOJO magazine he was stunned. “I was watching the Arsenio Hall Show one night. He had Rufus up against a juggler, treating him like a freak. The next day we were recording and I mentioned it. My manager said, ‘Rufus is probably in the phone book.’ I called, and an hour later he was in the studio. Hearing the pipes played in person was damn near religious.” It is the evocative drone of Harley’s bagpipe that is recorded as the opening notes to the title track of The Roots 1994 hit album “Do You Want More?!!!??!”.

Harley’s innovation use and playing of the bagpipe has been heralded universally for both its technique and simultaneous merging if disparate cultures.

“Rufus was a mystic. He was our brother and our ancestor at the same time while he was here,” explains international saxophonist Foster Child. “To play an instrument like the bagpipes you have you had definitely had to come from a different time. I believe he was incarnated to bring bagpipes into modern day times. For instance, he extended the language of the bagpipe by trick fingering–creating different fingering–to come up with different notes that normally would not be played on the bagpipes.”

Harley had become visibly thinner in recent months, but still maintained a busy playing schedule. The jazz bagpiper played until last Monday afternoon, just mere hours before his death the next day from a cancer he had disclosed to no one–not even his son. Until the end, Harley was only concerned about the next gig, even instructing his son to pick him up from the hospital on time. “He never tuned down a gig or a show for anybody,” said Messiah.

“He was American icon,” said Kenneth Gamble, co-founder of Philadelphia International Records. “He’ll be missed all over the world, and especially in Philadelphia. When you think about him you can hear those bagpipes playing.”


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