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.