Rufus Harley, who was billed as “the world’s first jazz bagpiper” and emitted his haunting sounds alongside some of the greats of jazz, died on Aug. 1 in Philadelphia, his hometown. He was 70.
The cause was prostate cancer, his son Messiah Patton Harley said.
Although Mr. Harley fully acknowledged that “everybody thought I was crazy” when he turned to bagpipes in the early 1960’s, he became a frequent sideman on records and in concerts with saxophonists like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt, with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and with the flutist Herbie Mann.
“He adapted the bagpipes to jazz, blues, funk and other typically African-American styles, while also acknowledging the instrument’s Scottish roots,” said David Badagnani, an instructor at the Center for the Study of World Musics at Kent State University.
Mr. Harley, who was 6-foot-2, was of African-American and Cherokee descent; he sometimes performed in Scottish kilts, sometimes in a dashiki and a Nigerian kufi, or skull cap.
In 1967 a New York Times review of a concert given by Mr. Mann, with Mr. Harley by his side, said that the bagpipe’s tones “sounded far more Middle Eastern than Scottish,” and that when combined with the flute, “the two wind instruments blended into an eerily swinging ensemble.”
Rufus Harley Jr. was born on May 20, 1936, outside of Raleigh, N.C. His family moved to a poor neighborhood in North Philadelphia when he was 2. He is survived by 16 children and 15 grandchildren. He and his wife, Barbara Jean Jones, separated many years ago.
As a teenager, Mr. Harley sold newspapers to buy a saxophone so he could play in his high school band. At 16 he dropped out of school and worked at odd jobs to help support his family. But he never lost interest in music. For 10 years he took lessons on the saxophone, oboe, trumpet and flute and played in local jazz clubs.
The turning point came in November 1963, as Mr. Harley watched the funeral procession for President John F. Kennedy on television and was taken by the wailing sound of the Black Watch bagpipe band. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reproduce the sound on his saxophone.
“My dad was playing a lot of tenor sax then,” his son Messiah said, “but because Coltrane and Rollins were smoking the sax, that’s why he turned to the bagpipes.”
A friend who knew of Mr. Harley’s interest spotted a used bagpipe in a pawnshop and, after a quick phone call, covered its $120 price. After months of practice, Mr. Harley was working in local clubs, and his unusual talent gained wider attention.
From 1965 to 1970, Mr. Harley was the lead artist on four albums on the Atlantic label. He began making appearances on television shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “What’s My Line?” “I’ve Got a Secret, ” Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and Bill Cosby’s “Cosby Show.” He accompanied the singer Laurie Anderson on her 1982 album “Big Science.” And in 1995 he worked with the hip-hop band the Roots on its album “Do You Want More?!!!??!”
All the while, Mr. Harley insisted that the bagpipe had African roots and that his chosen instrument had helped him “discover my identity by making me aware of my cultural heritage.”
In fact, Mr. Badagnani at Kent State noted, “there are double-pipe instruments in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo that resemble a bagpipe.”