Sonny Rollins and his band are being filmed playing Ronnie Scotts in 1974. As Sonny introduces Swing Low Sweet Chariot with a brief tenor solo, the camera moves to the man who until now has been playing soprano sax. He is wearing a small white headscarf, a voluminous yellow shirt, a black leather waistcoat, a black and yellow kilt, knee length argyle socks and a pair of brown Jesus sandals. But there is something strange about the picture: he has put down his saxophone, and is now playing…BAGPIPES!
The musician in question was one Rufus Harley, famously the first to make a primary jazz instrument of the Highland Bagpipe. He enjoyed great respect over what felt like a very long recording career, and was quite given to wearing Scottish garb, sometimes topped off with a Viking helmet. His work by no means offered the only recorded use of bagpipes in jazz, however. Dutch saxophonist Peter Bennink was a devil for the things, and Albert Ayler even paired them with an ocarina on one of his acclaim-dodging later albums. But are bagpipes really the most obscure instrument to be used in jazz? As the music has ceaselessly sought to reinvent itself, should we be at all surprised to see the instrumental pallet being broadened somewhat?
Let us go back to 1924, and hearken to the new waxing by Clarence Williams’ Blue Five, a rendering of the popular show tune “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.” It starts out nicely enough, with Louis Armstrong piping away cheerfully over Sidney Bechet’s soprano sax and Charlie Irvis’ cowshed trombone, and after Eva Taylor’s vocal interlude comes Bechet’s famous contrabass sarrusophone solo. I’m sorry? Beg pardon squire..? The sarrusophone was a double reed brass instrument invented in 1856 to replace the oboe and bassoon in outdoor bands, neither of which carried well in the open air. What Bechet was doing with one is anybody’s guess, but he despatches his solo with pleasing elegance, before allowing the beast to snore contentedly in the background for the ensemble finale.
The year before, in St. Louis, the Mound City Blue Blowers had formed with just a kazoo, a banjo and a comb and paper. This kind of spur-of-the-moment instrumentation was nothing new – New Orleans was a breeding ground for rough and ready spasm bands at this point – but the Blue Blowers got lucky, had novelty hits, augmented their line up with early luminaries such as Eddie Lang and Jack Teagarden, and their leader, Red Mackenzie, kept the name and some or other form of the band afloat until well into the 30s. The chosen record, Arkansaw Blues, was their first, and according to Mackenzie himself sold over a million copies following its release in 1924, perhaps because it was the first time the full sonic and emotional spectrum of the kazoo/comb-and-paper combination had been so wrenchingly displayed
The simple and untempered delights of swanee whistles, jugs and kazoos also had common currency in Vaudeville, minstrel revues and medicine shows, but if we poke around the darker corners of the homespun instrument department we’ll soon find the stovepipe. This was indeed a stovepipe, but bent and tweaked until it could offer some semblance of musical backing to whomever felt their performance might be thus enhanced. And what did it sound like? Well, it sounded like somebody making funny noises into a bendy metal tube, as demonstrated by this 1927 recording by Stovepipe No.1 and David Crockett. (The “No. 1” was presumably adopted to avoid confusion with Daddy Stovepipe, Stovepipe Johnson and Sweet Papa Stovepipe). The stovepipe itself is not to be confused with the gaspipe clarinet, of course, which wasn’t an instrument but a style of playing which was popular in various musical entertainments between around 1910 and 1930.
It embraced all manner of freak effects, animal noises, laughter, honks, howls and squawks. The players were usually multi-tasking entertainers, comedians, acrobats and what have you – the chap on the chosen record, Wilton Crawley, even doubled as a contortionist. Crawley was a passable singer and a decent musician, despite his occasional lapses into rasping degeneracy, and his bands were invariably studded with gleaming musicians – the pianist here is no less than Jelly Roll Morton!
As jazz developed, some surprising music was cajoled from apparently jazz-proof sources – step forward Ray Draper on tuba and Dorothy Ashby on harp. Ashby made the harp her primary instrument in 1952, initially playing free shows, weddings and dances to prove to her fellow musicians that it could be a going concern in a be-bop context. She made a number of successful albums in esteemed company, the best being with flautist Frank Wess, such as the record below (“It’s A Minor Thing”), although her output diminished after she settled in Los Angeles to run her own theatre group.
Ray Draper was not the first jazz tubist, but in 1957, aged just 17, he led an album bravely sharing front line duties with John Coltrane, whose self-willed tenor was not to be tangled with at this point. The chosen track sees the two instruments getting along quite amicably on the theme, but their differences become apparent at 3.19, when Draper’s sea monster solo is coming to an end and Coltrane basically pushes him out of the way!
From around 1958 onwards, and especially as the avant garde kicked in, an ever-widening range of instruments was brought into the fold, while new vocabularies were written for familiar instruments. Roland Kirk was known for augmenting his tenor with stritch and manzello – elderly members of the saxophone family – and for playing them all at the same time, bringing novelty and emotional freight in varying measure. This track, from his 1965 album “Rip, Rig and Panic,” shows a fabulous improviser showing off his party trick to tasteful effect. A bit shaky at the end, perhaps, but a small price for such a sterling performance! Sun Ra, a bandleader since the 40s as well as a fierce intellectual and a masterful showman, had pretty much tired of all restraint by 1961, and shortly after moving his band from Chicago to New York his music and its instrumentation moved in ever more challenging directions. Self-released albums with titles like “Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow,” “Other Planes of There” and “Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy” featured things like Jupiterian Flute, Sun Harp, Space Dimension Mellophone and Neptunian Libflecto, to name but a few.
Some of these were curios found in thrift shops, while others were modified versions of more conventional instruments, given peculiar names to propagate the current mythology of the band, who always got plenty of good noise out of them whatever they were. This excerpt from Moon Dance (“Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy,” 1963) would appear to feature Sky Tone Drums and Astro Space Organ, but who knows, it could just as easily be a heavily reverb-ed Bontempi!
Elsewhere in the avant garde, Ornette Coleman had famously formed a pianoless quartet in the late 1950s, with the idea that the absence of a traditional harmonic mooring would allow space for his alto sax improvisations to roam around more freely. Albert Ayler had written a whole new language for the tenor saxophone, based largely on all the sounds conventional playing had sought to avoid, and driven along by sheer energy, as evidenced by the chosen tune (“Ghosts, First Variation,” from Spiritual Unity, 1964) Musicians were now free to stand at any point they wished on an axis of melody, rhythm, harmonic invention and pure sound. Or to make as much noise as they felt like, if you’d rather. In Chicago, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians became wholly consumed by such ideas, not only leaving stuff out, but making funny noises with what was left, and a bunch of their top bananas, the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet (soon to morph into the Art Ensemble of Chicago), summed it all up when they made an album called “Sound” in 1966. The album, which sought to explore the notion that the silence in which musical sound was suspended was as important as the sound itself, was actually a record of great historical importance; using conventional instruments to make sounds for which they were not apparently designed, and deploying a battalion of “little instruments,” whistles, bells, ocarinas, melodicas and what not, it paved the way for a far less aggressive expression of the ideas of the free jazz avant garde. But was it still jazz as we knew it? You’d need to listen to the whole album to make your mind up, but here’s an excerpt from “The Little Suite” to whet your whistle…
And on it went. After this it was open season, as any number of artists felt their perfectly decent music was incomplete without a couple of rhythm logs or a handful of finger cymbals. In 1971, saxophonist Marion Brown corralled a top flight band to join him in making an album of improvisations intended to evoke a day in a forest in Georgia, wherein a gaggle of non-musicians added texture and colour by rattling away at some saucepan lids stuck to a board. A while later in Germany, guitarist Hans Reichel invented his own instrument, the daxophone, cheerfully developing an entire mythology around its supposed creator. And for a 1994 tour of Britain with his Creative Music Orchestra, Anthony Braxton had written a piece with a short break for sheet-of-tin-foil-blown-with-hair-dryer! Well, maybe it’s not too far from the comb-and-paper, but have we not come some way from the original question? Having established that virtually anything can have a place in the jazz scheme of things, are we still wary of bagpipes? Only two people can answer this – Rufus Harley and Sonny Rollins, take it away!