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?
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.
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.
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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