Last month, I wrote about Eugene McDaniels, a provocative singer-songwriter whose 1971 album, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse, was so brazen in its critique of war and colonization that it caught the attention of then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, who reportedly complained to McDaniels’ label, Atlantic Records, and got the LP banned. Though this might be the most glaring example of protest music in the early ‘70s, McDaniels wasn’t the only agitator.
Wendell Harrison, a Detroit-based tenor saxophonist and member of the citywide jazz collective Tribe, released an album in 1972 that conveyed life as a Black American living through the Nixon Years. Titled An Evening With The Devil, the LP was an efficient five-song, 27-minute suite of melodic jazz with brief volcanic flourishes and ambient soundscapes. Parts of it emulated confinement, the feeling of being trapped in a system you need and hate equally. This was a system based on inequality, where non-whites were subjected to state-sanctioned violence and prejudice at every turn. But where do you go when America is all you’ve ever known, and everything in your core says fight for your rights at home? How can you be free in a place where your ancestors never knew such liberty? How do you process the nightmares, the angst, the threat of death around the bend? These questions defined An Evening With The Devil, Harrison’s masterpiece.
The cover art bolstered the album’s theme. Designed by Harrison’s wife, Pat, the jacket depicts a nude man kneeling with his head down. He’s holding a skull in one arm and a foot in the other. The skull and foot represent different parts of the system — the intellectual propaganda and the invisible weight keeping minorities suppressed. “War is profitable from an economic standpoint and therefore the economy of the country is dependent upon it to survive,” Harrison once said in an interview. The foot, he continued, portrayed America’s court structure that legislated “against the true rights of the people and deny them an equal opportunity with smoke screen issues like housing, civil rights, and busing.” Above the nude man is an eye that symbolizes God witnessing the injustice playing out below.
The drawing is centered within an astrological chart of Harrison and was meant to epitomize every Black American trying to “balance this hell of a monster.” An Evening With The Devil was recorded around the same time as A Message From The Tribe, an emotive set that featured the work of trombonist and Tribe co-founder Phil Ranelin. One can hear strong connections between Evening and Message; they both lamented the state of the country and the plight of Black citizens.
While the album’s premise suggested a morose set of dark chords and textures, the music was anything but. It spiraled upward, growing more luxurious with each bar. Beginning with the track “Mary Had An Abortion,” an abstract cut with haunting strings, a scene-setting poem and drums that hover in the distance, the tenor of the arrangement laid out what Harrison mentioned in the referenced interview and on the cover. That even though the laws were ratified by mostly white politicians, America’s minority population would be blamed for society’s ills. On the sprawling “Where Am I,” the glittering mix of percussion and sporadic horn blasts depict the very moment the protagonist tumbles down the rabbit hole. With each trumpet squeal and drum stutter, the person goes deeper as the music glows brighter. By the time “Consciousness” arrives, the promise of equality is gone and xenophobia has taken over. The protagonist is weary and desperate for escape. “I realize what’s going on,” a poet declares. “The big ball of integration turns into the big ball of separation, the big ball of a separate Black nation where I can really be free.”
The album’s thesis still holds up today. Though there have been marginal gains, Black Americans are still pushing for the same equality that Harrison sought 50 years ago. Sonically, his album was more Funkadelic than Herbie Hancock, more left-leaning post bop than palatable pop. This LP, like others on Tribe Records, wasn’t crafted with the industry in mind. They solicited a higher form of enlightenment. An Evening With The Devil is brilliant, a radiant transference of peace still revealing itself.