Rufus Harley, the First Jazz Musician to Make the Bagpipes His Main Instrument, Performs on I’ve Got a Secret (1966)

Musi­cian Rufus Harley did the peo­ple of Scot­land a great favor when he took up the bag­pipes. Like the Loch Ness Mon­ster and hag­gis, out­side its coun­try of ori­gin, the nation­al instru­ment has evolved into a hack­neyed punch­line.

What bet­ter, more unex­pect­ed ambas­sador for its expand­ed pos­si­bil­i­ties than a cer­ti­fied Amer­i­can jazz cat?

He cer­tain­ly stumped the all-white celebri­ty pan­el when he appeared on Steve Allen’s pop­u­lar TV game show, “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1966.

Politi­cian and for­mer Miss Amer­i­ca Bess Myer­son’s open­ing ques­tion feels a bit impolitic from a 50 year remove:

Is it how well you play it that’s unusu­al?

“Yes, def­i­nite­ly,” Harley agrees.

Hav­ing quick­ly sussed out that the instru­ment in ques­tion is a wood­wind, the pan­el cycles through a list of can­di­dates — flute?




A…sweet pota­to?

Once they start bat­ting around sax­o­phones, Allen issues a brisk cor­rec­tive:

He wouldn’t be here tonight if he, you know, just played the sax­o­phone and that was his secret because that wouldn’t be too good a secret. 

Point tak­en.

Some­thing tells me a white guy in a suit and a tie would have elicit­ed less won­der from the pan­el upon the rev­e­la­tion that the instru­ment they failed to guess was the bag­pipes.

On the oth­er hand, here is a per­son of col­or com­mand­ing atten­tion and respect on nation­al tele­vi­sion in 1966, two days after the Black Pan­ther Par­ty was offi­cial­ly found­ed.

Harley had had pro­fes­sion­al train­ing in the sax­o­phone, oboe, trum­pet and flute, but as a bag­piper he was self-taught. As the com­ments on the video above demon­strate, his unortho­dox han­dling of the instru­ment con­tin­ues to con­found more tra­di­tion­al pipers. No mat­ter. The sounds he coaxed out of that thing are unlike any­thing you’re like­ly to hear on the bon­ny, bon­ny banks of Loch Lomond.

At the end of the seg­ment, Harley joined his back up musi­cians onstage for a live, Latin-inflect­ed cov­er of “Feel­ing Good.”

Spo­ti­fy lis­ten­ers can enjoy more of Harley’s dis­tinc­tive pip­ing here.

And just for fun, check out this list of bag­pipe terms.There’s more to this instru­ment than its asso­ci­a­tion with Groundskeep­er Willy might sug­gest.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What is Jazz?: Leonard Bernstein’s Intro­duc­tion to the Great Amer­i­can Art Form (1956)

A Young Frank Zap­pa Turns the Bicy­cle into a Musi­cal Instru­ment on The Steve Allen Show (1963)

John Cage Per­forms Water Walk on US Game Show I’ve Got a Secret (1960)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and the­ater mak­er whose lat­est play, Zam­boni Godot, is open­ing in New York City on March 2. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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