Rufus Harley Jazz Bagpiper

Rufus Harley May 20, 1936 – July 31, 2006
I sat down with Rufus on April 14, 2006 for this interview; this became the last interview. I offer it now in tribute to a great musician. My condolences to his family and friends.


PCM: Who makes your bagpipes?

Rufus: I usually take my pipes to this cat here. (Rufus hands me a card for Wee House Supply in Chalfont). How Much did you pay for your pipes?

PCM: I paid a little over a grand.

Rufus: I’m waiting on this new bag that’s coming in. I hear you don’t have to season it.

PCM: Is it Canmore?

Rufus: I don’t know, why can I get a bag from you? Here take my card.

PCM: I already have one but I’ll take another one.

Rufus: Well if you have one that’s cool, I’ll take that one back.

PCM: I use to go see you at Ron’s Ribs and I saw you at General Lafayette Inn a few years back. I also remember seeing you with Laurie Anderson. You were my first inspiration on the pipes.

Rufus: Thanks for dropping by Bro! The pipes are one hell of an instrument! It got me so spiritually in touch with myself. I don’t know what to do man, it’s got me so spiritually locked. Are you getting this down?

PCM: I’m taping it.

Rufus: Let me see, I got inspired by watching The Black Watch at the late President Kennedy’s funeral. I saw them, I guess Kennedy’s spirit came off that day and I heard a little voice say, “Why don’t you get some bagpipes and try em”.
I was playing tenor, soprano; all the reeds. So I went to a Jewish pawn shop to get some Scottish bagpipes. And me, Native American. Right there alone shows you what an American is. It includes every nationality and American represent the whole planet. I call it me – Native American, we – French that’s on the constitution, us – the United States and ya’ll, so every time you say US you are saying you are the United States in every nationally.
So I paid $120 for em but when I first saw them I thought there’s nothing to this because I thought the flute was very hard. I gave the dude his pipes back and I got my money back and when I was walking out I heard that voice again and it said, “Go back and get them again!, you can do this”. The neighbors complained and called the police, when they would come to the door They’d say they’ve had complaints about bagpipes coming from here. I’d say do I look like I’m Irish and Scottish? And they’d say, “I thought this was a prank.” And I took them to my music teacher Dennis Sanbole. He told me you can play any instrument once you learn the language. So we got into it and I just kept on studying basic music. I was able to apply the modern culture to the bagpipes. I tried it on the left side and it didn’t work, now I got it on my right side. It worked better for me. One day a Scottish family saw me playing on TV with my pipes mounted on the right side. And my drones hanging all out there. They called me and I went to their house and they said, “Mr. Harley, if you’re gonna play with your pipes on their right you have to change the pipes. So they fixed my pipes for a right handed player. They gave me my Tartan, the McCloud tartan and sent me on my merry way.
You see the bagpipes go back to ancient Egypt and the Moors took the pipes to Scotland and Ireland. They have found bagpipes in tombs with the mummies. To me the pipes are the mother instrument; it sustains. That sustaining element gives you the male and the female, you dig? I call it the inner me. The inner me is on the chanter the inner ma is the drone. So you bring the inner me and ma together. What I’ve learned with the pipes is that the female is the spiritual part of man and man is the spiritual part of the female. I call it the invisible bitch and the invisible man. So the idea is to bring harmony between the two ideas. To bring a blend between the two elements. It helps me to understand; to be a vegetarian. I had to get my liver together. I got off all dead flesh, I got particular to how, what I taste. I don’t eat, I taste. When I picked up the pipes to play I heard that voice again and it said if you gonna play me you clean your ass up because you are a hog jowl chitlin’ eatin’, you know what I’m trying to say. So I changed my perspective of life.The bagpipes when they were first brought over here the people were just speaking Gaelic and Celtic but now the Scotts & Irish are speaking English, but the tradition sound you can’t get that sound now on the chanter. So what I did was put the English on in and here I am the worlds first jazz bagpiper. After twenty five years it’s still kicking me in the ass. Because the bagpipe teaches you never assume anything and take anything for granted. You dig? You gotta stay close to em and if you together, it will act right. If you’re not cool it ain’t gonna be cool. It taught me a lot!

As Rufus was finishing this sentence his house phone rang. As he was listening to the caller his facial expression took on a grave expression. Rufus hung up and apologized that he had to stop the interview. He said it was his doctor and he wanted to see him at the hospital; I asked if he needed a ride. Rufus said he would be ok, and thanked me.