Like most Americans alive at the time, Rufus Harley was transfixed by the November 25, 1963 reporting from John F. Kennedy’s funeral. America had lost its leader, and with ears pressed to radios or eyes turned to television screens, each person witnessed the end of a tragic turn of events. In the background, Harley heard a low sound. A deep droning echoing over the sadness. Harley, a Philadelphia jazz musician who at that point had been playing the flute and saxophone, felt something stir in him. It wasn’t just the sadness of the day, it was that sound.
Those low moaning notes falling over the procession were the exact sounds he had been trying to capture in his music. “When I heard and saw the Black Watch Bagpipe Band marching across the funeral grounds,” Harley said in a 1982 interview, “I was very impressed with the sound of the instrument. I could understand it.”
Understand it? Sure. Reproduce it? Well. He tried to make his horn produce that sound. Tried and failed. There’s nothing like the real thing, and so that winter, Harley bought a set of bagpipes for $120 from a pawn shop, making him the first jazz musician to make the Great Highland bagpipes his primary instrument.
But he kept at it, and by 1965 he’d caught the attention of Joel Dorn, a young Atlantic Records A&R assistant. A year earlier, the label had tasked Dorn with finding a new talent, someone who’d never lead a band before. He brought them Hubert Laws, a jazz flautist. Dorn was nothing if not unconventional, so for him Harley was a natural next step. In 1965, Haley released his first album, Bagpipe Blues, and it was a hit—for a bagpipe jazz record. Dorn recalled in an interview that appeared in the liner notes of a 2008 Atlantic Records jazz compilation: “[T]he bagpipe record took off! Now when I say it took off, it sold five, six, thousand copies. But for a jazz album by an unknown artist, and one who played the bagpipes? That was a big deal.” The album featured seven tracks, a mix of traditional Scottish songs, spirituals, show tunes, and originals, with Harley on bagpipes for just three of them. But they’d done it. Harley and Atlantic records had released an album that would forever require people to say bagpipes and jazz in the same sentence.
|Brand||Atlantic Records / Warner Japan|
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