Jazz bagpipes

April 12, 2012

One of the most remarkable jazz duets I’ve ever heard is between the saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the jazz bagpipes player Rufus Harley, playing a 14-minute version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot. I first came across it years ago on an LP called The Cutting Edge, recorded live at Montreux, which I’d bought as a heavily discounted ‘cut out‘. (in the days of vinyl records and cardboard sleeves, distributors would make a physical cut to the sleeves of their deleted records to make sure that shops couldn’t pass them off as full price records).

I was astonished: I’d spent much of my childhood in Scotland, which has too high a population of bagpipes players for its own good, and where the instrument is associated mostly with skirls and dirges. Hearing Rufus Harley swing low on the bagpipes was a revelation to me.

It seems that The Cutting Edge has turned into a modest classic in the meantime; it’s one of those CDs that seems to stay in print, albeit at a budget price. But I hadn’t realised until recently, when I saw it on BBC4’s ‘lost’ film of Rollins at Ronnie Scott’s Club in 1974, that there was also footage of Rollins and Harley playing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. (And, of course, there’s a version to be found on YouTube, seen at the top of this post).

Everyone knows about Sonny Rollins; he is a colossus of the saxophone, after all. But I had to look up Rufus Harley, who appears in the Ronnie Scott’s film resplendent in a yellow tartan. He was of African and Cherokee descent, brought up in Philadelphia, and learnt trumpet and saxophone as a teenager. He became interested in the bagpipes after seeing the Scots regiment Black Watch playing them at John Kennedy’s funeral (Harley was 27 at the time), and had to travel to New York to find a second hand set, there being none in Philly. He was the first person to adapt the instrument to the rhythms of jazz.

The yellow kilt in the film – a MacLeod tartan – was given to him by a Scots family after they had seen him play on television (every bagpiper needs a tartan, right?). But he played cultural games the other way around. Bagpipes are hugely noisy, and as one profile explains:

“I started playing the pipes, and the neighbor would call the cops on me,” Harley recalled. “So I see the cops coming, and I stop blowing the pipes.

“The cops would come to the door and say, ‘I’m sorry, but we have a complaint that there’s bagpipes being played here.’

“Then I tell the cops, ‘Do I look like I’m Irish or Scottish to you?’

“I got away with it for a long time.”

One of jazz’s originals.

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