Jazz flute! And four more unusual jazz instruments

This week Brit looks beyond the saxophone, trumpet and piano for some less obvious jazz soloists. Here are four increasingly unusual lead instruments. You won’t believe the fourth…

In the (extremely amusing) film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Bergundy, Will Ferrell has his hero reveal an unexpected talent for ‘jazz flute’ (above). A jazz flute scene, Ferrell must have realised, is inherently funny in a way that a jazz trumpet one, however absurd or exaggerated the performance, would not be, simply because it’s such an odd specialism to have developed.

But why should we limit our jazz expectations to the usual lead instruments: the sax, the clarinet, the piano? After all, the two giants of French jazz played none of the above. Guitarist Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli formed the extremely influential Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 and continued with various combinations of rhythm musicians (guitar and bass) until 1948. Here’s a classic line-up…

Staying on the wrong side of the channel, you can’t get much more French than jazz accordion. This virtuouso – and occasional member of the Grappelli/Reinhardt Hot Club – was Gus Viseur (1915-1974). An accomplished player in the popular 19th Century ‘musette’ musical style, he pioneered, along with Reinhardt, a style known as ‘manouche’, or ‘gypsy jazz’. Flambée montalbanaise is the quintessential recording….

Let us lurch now to the proper home of jazz. Black America has produced great saxophonists and other virtuoso blowers galore, but here’s an astonishing talent unfairly neglected because of her unpopular niche: the jazz harp. In fact, the Detroit-born Dorothy Ashby (1932-1986) produced quite thrilling music. Here’s a deeply groovy number called Soul Vibrations, from the 1968 album Afro-Harping

But I’ve saved the strangest for last. Rufus Harley (1936-2006) has been described as “the first man to take up the bagpipes as his main jazz instrument” – which prompts the question: “There have been others?”

A versatile black Philly jazz musician playing sax, oboe, clarinet and, yes, flute, he was inspired to take up the ‘pipes after seeing Black Watch perform during JFK’s funeral procession. He acquired a cheapo set from a New York pawn shop and taught himself to play, adapting the instrument of aural torture to the jazz and funk styles. God knows how it must have sounded when he was learning, but when a neighbour called the police to complain Harley’s practicing in his apartment, he quickly hid the bagpipes and feigned complete ignorance, asking the officers, “Do I look like I’m Irish or Scottish to you?”

A gigantic-looking man, his outlandish stage outfit included a kilt and horned Viking helmet. He’s worth a gander on Youtube. This is Malika

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7 thoughts on “Jazz flute! And four more unusual jazz instruments

  1. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    January 29, 2012 at 19:54

    In the late 60’s I was fortunate enough to catch Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Opposite Lock (I think) in Birmingham. This blind wizard employed circular breathing to extend a note indefinitely (air in through the nose, at the same time air expelled from the puffed-out cheeks of the mouth-cavity – don’t try this at home without a nurse handy) – but the real marvel was the instruments he played, often at the same time – tenor, alto and soprano sax for instance. He played trumpet really well, and struck various bells and gongs, but was a virtuoso on clarinet and nose-flute + regular flute, managing to sing at the same time as blowing. Tull’s Ian Anderson was influenced I believe, among many others. His like will not pass this way again, methinks.

    • Brit
      January 29, 2012 at 20:05

      Althought Courtney Pine might come close – another circular-breathing multi-instrumentalist. I’ve seen him in concert and he was a blast. No bagpipes, alas.

  2. Worm
    January 29, 2012 at 21:16

    That’s some far out stuff right there! The Fast Show’s Jazz Club would approve…nice. A quick check on Youtube seems to point to a dearth of jazz hurdy gurdy as of yet

  3. mikewzim@gmail.com'
    mike z
    January 30, 2012 at 04:15

    Oh, what Django could do with a crippled left hand.

    Got to see Roland Kirk in a small Columbus Ohio bar late in his run. (His home town.)
    Most thrilling bagpipe performances, last year’s St Patrick day’s 5th avenue parade. The bands’ solemnness and costumes were dramatic.

  4. editor@anatomyofnorbiton.org'
    Toby Ferris
    January 30, 2012 at 19:48

    Ray Draper wielded a very respectable jazz tuba:


    (solo at around 4:50)

  5. prosperousbliss@gmail.com'
    February 21, 2012 at 13:15

    I’m from the Philippines and I was amazed with the fact that even a Japanese bamboo flute looks simple in appearance but it is actually very difficult to play. I’ve read that if plays by the master this Shakuhachi Flute create an amazing, subtle, sensual music – prized as being perfect for meditation and relaxation. It’s beautiful, soulful sound made that best hear when you are taking a good rest or about to sleep.

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