The mechanism of the instrument – a bag, fundamentally, directing air across the pipe’s reed within the instrument, the holes on the pipe allowing precise notes to be played – can be traced to different regions of Europe, Africa, and Asia, but most people naturally associate bagpipes with the military music of the Scottish highlands.

The real miracle of the bagpipes, though, this strange contrivance of tassles, pipes, and the bag, wedged like a pillow under the arm, is that they produce anything, let alone their drones and otherworldly reels of sound.

Its mysteries and precise origins aside, I take it as further evidence of the 1960s as jazz’s creative and commercial zenith, that two unique jazz musicians – Rufus Harley and Duke Payne – were able to transcend the instrument’s popular associations, if for only a few choice releases.

1. Duke Payne, The Bottom (M and M)
Layers of percussion, a vibraphone, a Hammond organ and peals of wah-wah guitar are all here in this dense, reverberating exposition of psychedelic jazz. And there it is, too: the sound of the bagpipes swirling around unmistakeably in the mix. The bagpipe, capable of sustained, uninterrupted drones, is heard to spectacular effect on “The Bottom,” a late ‘60s release on one of Chicago’s finest indie R&B and jazz labels, M and M records. (See Red Saunders Research for an excellent overview and discography of this fascinating label.)

Artee “Duke” Payne is probably best remembered today for his forward-thinking saxophone and flute work with Odell Brown and the Organ-izers, an excellent ‘60s soul-jazz combo (see Larry Grogan’s survey of Odell Brown material here). Payne is also part of what’s great about post-war Chicago’s community of musicians and the proliferation of tiny record labels that serviced them. With plenty of work to go around, it was a community that seemed to encourage the exchange of ideas and a spirit of freewheeling adventure.

As of at least 2005, Duke Payne was still performing and actively playing the bagpipe.

2. Bros. in Co-op, Listen Heah (Bunky)
It starts out its brief life as a straightforward vamp on “Listen Here” – an Eddie Harris composition that’s the essence of hip ‘60s jazz commercialism. With the introduction of the bagpipes, however, “Listen Heah” is transformed – the bagpipes are no less hip, just a completely different kind of hip – and transformed yet again with another set of bagpipes (presumably overdubbed).

The bagpipes we hear are again the handiwork of Duke Payne. Little is otherwise known about the Bros. in Co-op; I would assume that they were Chicago jazz musicians assembled by arranger (and future ‘70s R&B; superstar) Donny Hathaway for a one-off session, circa 1968 or ’69.

3. Rufus Harley, Bagpipe Blues (Atlantic)
Often mistakenly referenced as jazz’s only bagpiper, Philadelphia’s Rufus Harley is, with numerous guest appearances and five albums released between 1966 and 1972, the instrument’s most visible emissary. He’s also, as far as I know, the bagpipe’s true originator as a jazz instrument.

As the story goes, Rufus Harley was already a professional saxophonist when, inspired by the Black Watch pipers at John F. Kennedy’s televised funeral, he decided to have a go at the bagpipes. The bagpipes aren’t really the sort of instrument one just picks up on a whim; it’s to Harley’s credit that by 1966 he’d released one of Atlantic Records’ top-selling jazz albums, and was himself appearing on national television dressed in full Scottish regalia, wringing the hell out of his bagpipes – just like the Black Watch three years earlier. His “Bagpipe Blues,” a jazz march (vaguely reminiscient of Benny Golsen’s “Blues March”), is the title track of his debut album, and it seems appropriate that this was also the album’s lead-off track. Several years of marshalling his energies and here was Rufus Harley, a black jazz musician in a kilt, with bagpipes. It reads like the opening salvo of a creative mind marching into battle against squares, skeptics and snobs.

Rufus Harley passed away in August 2006, a proponent of jazz bagpipes until the very end.

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12 Responses to Bagpipes

  1. Anonymous says:

    Damn you, Little Danny. I hate that you make me like the bagpipes. Now I must challenge you to find a recording of a Scott playing bagpipes that I like. And it’s going to take more than just an otherworldly circular breathing drone to do that, btw.

  2. Yeah, the bagpipes tend to divide people in a sort of profound way. I (personally) love the sound of traditional Scottish bagpipes; something about their weird, almost Eastern quality.

    Maybe in five years I’ll be writing with three Scottish bagpipe 45s. Sadly there won’t be any more bagpipe jazz 45s as these ARE the only three bagpipe jazz 45s.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The first time I heard R. Harley was his version of “Windy” off the kings and queens lp. I fell to the ground laughing – in ecstasy… It was so improbable and swinging. That was a fun day. Not to divert away from the bagpipe conversation but I always liked the piano player on the Harley lp’s – Oliver Collins.. he really ties it all together and manages to get some soulful licks in there too!

    I haven’t seen him on any other records.. ??? any leads – ideas?

    slow poke

  4. Anonymous says:

    Little Danny – this is regrettably my first comment on here, but I just wanted to say THANK YOU for creating/hosting/writing/sharing such a wonderful blog. I religiously check back every Monday to see what else you’ve discovered; you’ve shared some real treats on here very consistently.

    This week, I have to admit, I was a little skeptical when I read the word “Bagpipes”, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear how smoothly those banshees wail in the swingin’ jazz context. Especially loving that Duke Payne track.

    Keep up the good work!

    – Mr. Attention

  5. Indeed, they sound like a gimmick at first, especially on paper. (Perhaps “novelty” is slightly less cruel.) Bagpipes truly do work in jazz context, I believe – especially in its wilder and more exotic/psychedelic forms. Though I think they’re ultimately limited by their technical difficulty and their very unsubtle volume levels.

    Anyway, thanks for your kind words, Mr. Attention; believe me, it’s my pleasure.

  6. Hey Slow Poke, I agree about Oliver Collins – he’s a fantastic, modern player with a tasteful Latin tones. And… I don’t know anything about him either. I’m excited and proud to say I have all of Harley’s Atlantic albums, though; I’ll check ’em next time they’re at hand and see if there’s any info on Collins.

    I assume he was from Philadelphia..

  7. Mr Fab says:

    I’ve never understood how a rock fan could dislike bagpipes, especially in a large group – that huge nasal snarl is the acoustic analog of big rock guitars. If Johnny Ramone went folk, it’d have been ‘pipes for him.

    So thanks for these, especially “Listen Heah.” Anyone know of other non-trad uses of bagpipes?

  8. I read somewhere that avant-jazzbo Albert Ayler dabbled in the bagpipe; I’m sure it was pretty memorable if nothing else.

    I have one other bagpipe 45, “Bagpipe Bomp” by Wee Garry & His Piper Cubs which is a pretty amazing R&B;/pop instrumental with, you guessed it, bagpipe. REALLY rudimentary bagpipe.

    Aside from the supremely dorky “bagpipe guitars” of ’80s Scot-rockers Big Country, that’s about all I can think of. It’s definitely an instrument with a lot of latitude for non-trad use, methinks, but I’d guess that the bagpipe’s technical difficulty (or so I’ve read) keeps it from more widespread experimentation.

  9. Mike says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a bagpipe solo on ACDC’s It’s a long way to the top – gloriously incongruous. I love the tracks you’ve posted, thanks, but can’t help feeling I’d love them more if the bagpipes weren’t there. Perhaps the north of England where I am is just a little too close to Scotland. Great to hear them though.

  10. Larry Grogan says:

    Great post (and thanks for the link). I believe Coltrane dabbled in the bagpipes during his late-Impulse period.
    Harley also did some sideman work with Herbie Mann.
    I have a 45 by Ernie Fields Jr. on Kent, with a flute instro on one side and a tune called ‘Funky Pipes’ (yep, bagpipes) on the other.

  11. Thanks the tip, Larry – I can’t believe I missed that Ernie Fields 45. I’m on the case…

  12. Anonymous says:

    Big Country? Ha! Nice to the not so subtle reference to days of your youth!

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