James Rivers already excels with the tenor saxophone and the clarinet, so you wouldn’t think that he would need to add to his repertoire by playing, of all instruments, the bagpipe. Yet Rivers, who jokes about the rareness of a black man playing an instrument for which the most famous tune is “Scotland the Brave,” became intrigued. As he tells the story, one day he was watching a football game on television and noticed bagpipes in a school band. At the time the leading music store in the city was Werlein’s, where he already did much of his business. He called and was told that they did not have the instrument but could order one.
During an interview with music writer Jason Berry at the recent Jazz Fest, Rivers recalled that he did not know which brand of bagpipes to order so he just took what was available. To teach himself, he bought bagpipe records and listened intently. “I am not really a bagpiper,” Rivers qualified, “but a musician who learned how to play one.” A major challenge was the breath control. Rivers discovered that it was difficult to puff the required wind amount into the bag. Fortunately, he saw an ad for a bagpipe for sale in the newspaper. When the seller came to deliver his product, Rivers tried it and discovered that it was much less exhausting. The seller explained that his original bagpipe was an inferior brand, and that the better bagpipes are much more proficient at holding the wind. At last, playing the bagpipes seemed feasible.
Our cover story is about places to hear live music. At one of those places, on some nights, you might hear Rivers and his band, collectively known as The Movement. Stay for the set because Rivers always does at least one song on the bagpipes. Backed by his band you will hear the instrument unlike any way you have ever heard.
On YouTube there is a clip of Rivers playing the bagpipes at the 2013 Jazz Fest. True confession # 1. I have never liked hearing the bagpipes. True confession #2. Rivers’ performance with the instrument is a wonderful melding, a jazzy rendition of “Blue Skies” with lots of improvisation, even a touch of “Scotland the Brave,” and the beat of the orchestra.
Bagpipers of the world pay attention: You need this guy.