I first saw Rufus Harley when I was just nineteen years old. It was at the Laurel Race Track, in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., where they were holding a jazz festival. The festival was all that a young jazz fan could want. A beautiful evening under the stars, kicked off with a burning set by Jimmy Smith. Also on the bill were the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, Arthur Prysock, The Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Orchestra, the still local artist and public school music teacher Roberta Flack, the newly married Miriam Makeba fresh off hits like Pati Pati, and then came the announcement of a new artist I'd never heard of before, Rufus Harley. Even in an era marked by experimentation and exploration, Harley came as a surprise.
Taking the stage was a man dressed in Africanesque garb, carryng with him, sort of like a local Roland Kirk, a tenor sax, flute, and . . . . a set of bag pipes! His small group kicked into a killer rhythm, Harley put one pipe from the bag into his mouth, began the truly psychedelic work of pumping the bag full of air and getting its pipes in order, and then broke into the most amazing modal improvisation based on The Byrds' "Eight Miles High." The crowd, and I, went wild. None of us had ever seen anything like this before. None of us had heard this sound in jazz before. None of us was ready for the set to end when Harley brought it to a close to make way on the stage for the next act. In the patter between numbers, Harley laid claim to the bag pipes, a claim he had already made convincingly with his playing, but he wanted us to know that the pipes had an Egyptian ancestor.
Around the same time, Harley released a couple of albums for Atlantic records, most notably THE PIED PIPER OF JAZZ.
I probably don't have to tell you that this was not a strategy likely to get Harley a lot of radio air play, even in the day of free form FM. There were a few more releases, but Harley always had to scrape for a living. Still, he never abandoned his dedication to jazz, his eclectic afrocentrism, or the bag pipes.
I got to see Harley perform again in the early 1980s at D.C. Space, a great venue on E St., NW in Washington. My school friend David Goren and I went down to catch the set. This time, Harley came out not only carrying the pipes, but dressed in kilts. He still asserted the African origins of the pipes, but he also confessed his obsession with them. He was a master of tenor sax, and a fairly good flute player, but it was the pipes that had determined the course of his life ever since he had first seen a set of them. At several points during the evening, he held his arms wide, displaying himself, his pipes and his kilts to the audience, and saying, "Hey, I didn't ask for any of this." "This" included spending the rent money on a set of bag pipes when he was just starting out, bearing up under the ridicule that a black man playing jazz on the bag pipes had to endure, trying to piece together a living without giving up his music. This even included Harley's brief stint as an actor. If you rent the movie EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (poster over there to the right -- Remember that thing? It was a sort of mystery bult around a faux Springsteen character), you can see Harley on stage as a sax player in one of the bands in the flick.
Rufus Harley never got the attention or the success he deserved, but he did get a witness. Those of us who found ourselves in his audience were never the same thereafter.
Harley died last week in Philadelphia; the record of his strange experiment lives on. According to a recent posting on Amazon, where you can also see the reissued, expanded version of his album RE-CREATION OF THE GODS, there is a boxed set of Harley's recordings in the works.
It comes, as always for the jazz artist, a bit late, but it comes.
Rufus Harley, eight miles high on the bag pipes, a jazz original, a pure product of America. Here's a strangled sample of Bag Pipe Blues -- get the CDs and hear it full force.