[JPL] Rufus Harley

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Sat Aug 5 12:12:44 EDT 2006

Posted on Fri, Aug. 04, 2006

All who knew him dug this bagpiping jazz pioneer

<mailto:huntera at phillynews.com>huntera at phillynews.com 215-854-5855

Rufus Harley was a black man who wore a kilt and played the bagpipes.

Not exactly the first image that comes to mind when thinking about a jazz 

Even without the kilt or bagpipes, Rufus Harley, who died this week at age 
70, was different. He was sweet, had an abiding love for Philadelphia, 
America and the Constitution.

But a conversation with Harley? Well, it could be a challenge. His ideas 
about brotherhood often were expressed through his linguistic magic; he 
would turn words and phrases inside out, slice them up, rearrange them, 
then wave his philosophical wand over them.

Suddenly, "we & me & us" became U.S. And to write meant to "right" the 
story - or something like that.

"He was mystical, spiritual, eccentric," said Joel Dorn, the former disc 
jockey at WHAT (1340-AM) who signed Harley to his first record deal in the 
1960s and now oversees Hyena Records in New York. They stayed in touch 
regularly over the years.

"I've been doing this stuff for 45 years," Dorn said. "I've seen good cats, 
bad cats, talented cats, untalented. [Harley] had a charm. In the worst of 
times he had a smile on his face."

Harley was considered a superb musician. "I got some of my stuff from 
Rufus, like the drone on the bagpipes" said Khan Jamal, a 
Philadelphia-based vibraphonist. "I created my own drone on the vibes and 
played melodies on top of it."

Bob Perkins, radio-personality for WRTI (90.1-FM) recalled he played 
Harley's bagpipe music while a DJ in Detroit. But Perkins really enjoyed 
hearing Harley play the soprano and tenor saxophones, and flute.

"As a musician, I loved the cat's playing. As a man, I loved him even 
more," Perkins said. "I don't think he had a vicious bone in his body."

But there was that communication thing. "Sometimes, I didn't always 
understand him," Perkins said. "But I stood there and gave him my time 
because I dug the cat."

When it came to music, Harley connected, especially early in his career. In 
the '60s he played with some of the best: Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, 
Herbie Mann.

He was the first to play jazz on the bagpipes. He learned history of the 
instrument and conquered it. He played "Chim Chim Cheree" and "Amazing 
Grace" and "Melancholy Baby" and "A Love Supreme" on it. He appeared on the 
old television game shows "What's My Line" and "To Tell the Truth" with it.

A jazz bagpipe player was a novelty. The bagpipes helped Harley earn his 
bread and butter. But with its limited range and drone, the bagpipes could 
sound a tad overbearing in heavy doses. And some critics refused to take 
Harley seriously. "It wasn't an easy path for him, playing bagpipes," Dorn 

Still, Harley worked. He appeared at special events in Philadelphia, such 
as NAACP affairs, funerals, parades, and memorial services.

And they loved him overseas, said saxophonist Byard Lancaster, who has 
played with Harley since 1961. Lancaster in recent years had taken Harley 
and guitarist Monnette Sudler to France with him.

Harley took seriously his role, self-appointed and otherwise, of ambassador.

"The message that he left was that we must push the liberty, the freedom 
and the attitude of the Founding Fathers," Lancaster said. That attitude 
was "brotherly love," he said.

Harley was "the chief ambassador of Philadelphia during Mayor Wilson 
Goode's reign," Lancaster said. Harley would always carry miniature Liberty 
Bells and hand them out to just about anyone he came in contact with.

After Goode left office, "Rufus bought close to 900 bells, paid for them 
out of his own pocket," Lancaster said.

The bells, copies of the Constitution, miniature American flags. All were 
used by Harley to spread love and peace around the world.

And so did the bagpipes.

A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Sharon Baptist Church, 3955 
Conshohocken Ave.

© 2006 Philadelphia Daily News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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