If you were to say to me that there was some bagpipe Soul Jazz with a Latin tinge out there, I might say that you were pulling my leg. However, this past weekend while digging, I rescued such a record from melting in the sun. The artist I’m speaking about is Rufus Harley and this special record I’m speaking about is called “Feeling Good” off of his 1967 Scotch & Soul LP on Atlantic Records.
Rufus Harley was born in Raleigh, NC and then relocated to The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, PA shortly after with his family. A multi-instrument player, Harley started off with the saxophone but also played the flute, oboe, and trumpet. However, it was an unusual instrument, the bagpipes that he is well known for. Inspired by the funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the bagpipe procession that accompanied it, Harley tried unsuccessfully to get his saxophone to sound like the bagpipes. It was a friend who found the instrument for him, and after some short practice, Harley set out on the circuit of local Jazz clubs with the instrument. As his audience grew bigger, Rufus Harley would take the bagpipes as far as you could in Jazz, earning the title “the world’s first Jazz bagpiper”.
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. ”- Joel Dorn
Besides being a solo artist in his own right, releasing the majority of his records on Atlantic, and Ankh, plus a retrospective on Rhino, Harley was also a sideman. His talent was recruited by greats such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Herbie Mann among others. He had an amazing knack to adapt the bagpipes sound to many different genres of music, sometimes giving it a Latin or Middle Eastern flavor. Says David Badagnani, an instructor at the Center for the Study of World Musics at Kent State University: “He adapted the bagpipes to Jazz, Blues, Funk and other typically African-American styles, while also acknowledging the instrument’s Scottish roots.” While Harley would profess that the bagpipes helped him get closer to his African roots, the instrument is mostly known to Scotland (with some appearances around Europe and Northern Africa). Although it was his impetus, really this fact doesn’t matter where they came from. His choice of this unique instrument and drive to promote its sound would make him the only “pied piper of Jazz”. He has a place in Hip Hop history too, he played on The Roots release Do You Want More???!! and was a well know composer. Mr. Harley toured right to the very end up until his death in 2006.
It’s unique that Mr. Harley would choose this tune, as it’s from a 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. It has been covered from everyone from Nina Simone to the Rock band Muse and more. Harley’s version of “Feeling Good” starts out as a Latin tune, Robert Gossetts’ congas peddling some Mongo Santamaria-like rhythm. It’s all Latin until Harley’s bagpipes kick in. The eerie sound moistly associated with funerals and golfing in the fog gets totally funked up on this side. At first it seems odd, out of place and out of time. However, that feeling is quickly replaced by a head nod, and an acknowledgement that in Jazz you have to keep an open mind, even when it seems unconventional. Wearing kilts and a Kufi, Rufus Harley turned a Scottish tradition and made it his Jazz. Rufus Harley’s version of Jazz was far out, like Sun Ra, or Cecil McBee, but if you listen closely, he’s not too far from funky on this track. His “Bagpipes Blues” LP and 45 is also some Soul Boogaloo type of ish. Don’t sleep on the bagpipes kids. Rufus Harley didn’t, and he took over the Jazz world in his own way.
Rufus Harley puts a spin on “Sunny”, bagpipes and all.