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Lifetime Achievement Award in Music: Wardell Quezergue

On an unseasonably warm December afternoon, Wardell Quezergue walks carefully into the Musicians Union meeting hall on Esplanade Avenue. The 77-year-old, legally blind Quezergue can’t see the rich reddish brown carpet of falling leaves outside the hall or the Christmas decorations that lend a cozy holiday glow to the inside of the room, but if you put those images into a song, he can still write an arrangement that would bring them vividly to life, just as he did on so many New Orleans classics, from “Trick Bag” and “Big Chief” to “Chapel of Love,” “Iko Iko,” “Barefootin’,” “Groove Me,” “Mr. Big Stuff” and countless others.

During the course of the afternoon, Quezergue will be joined by the musicians in his band to rehearse the program for a holiday concert at the Cabildo that will feature a hefty helping of Quezergue classics, songs that all benefit from his signature ability to make anything he encounters something more than it was before.

The room seems to brighten at his entrance, as if the dignity of Quezergue’s presence adds the kind of élan to social interactions his arrangements bring to music. Dressed impeccably yet casually in a dark wool suit and open collared shirt, his unaffected smile responds to greetings from various locations. He carries his head high, projecting a stolid, determined refusal to accept disability as anything more than an inconvenience.

“You’re looking good, Wardell,” becomes a refrain, especially from the women who arrive as the afternoon progresses.

Quezergue is in a loquacious mood, telling anecdotes about his career without regard to unremembered names and conflicting details and reveling in the laughter his stories produce.

“One session that strikes me is the thing I did with the Mighty Diamonds,” he says. “We did all the New Orleans songs on that one, with a reggae beat. Man, I couldn’t understand a thing they were saying. They had an interpreter and I couldn’t understand the interpreter. They had an interpreter for him.”

Then there was the time Robbie Robertson came to New Orleans for a session.

“I did an arrangement on a song for Robbie Robertson that he didn’t particularly care for. He didn’t say it was lousy, but I could tell he didn’t care for it. Then he went to New York the people there said that was the best one in the group. So there’s different kinds of reactions to my work, just like there’s different interviews. I did one interview and the guy was talking about the record with Gatemouth Brown and he’s saying, ‘What’s Wardell Quezergue doing making a jazz record when he’s a rock ’n’ roll arranger?’

“If I wrote a book I would write about different phrases that people stuck on me like that jazz guy who called me a rock ’n’ roll arranger… Man, I grew up in New Orleans. All we had was jazz. I knew something about jazz before I ever heard of rock ’n’ roll. I just adapted that kind of sound to rhythm and blues.

“When I wrote my Creole Mass one of the conductors came up to me and said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anything that looks so bad and sounds so right.’ Another conductor stopped the rehearsal and said to me ‘Wardell, do you know what you wrote?’ I said ‘Well I wrote it’ He said, ‘Okay’ and started conducting again.”

Quezergue doesn’t have a trademark style, instead approaching each song as a unique entity.

“When we were doing a session with the Neville Brothers, an engineer came up to me and said, ‘Wardell, with every other arranger when I hear something, I know what’s coming up next. You’re the only arranger I know who doesn’t do that. You’re always taking right turns and doing something unpredictable.’ That’s the way I think, upside down.”

Though Quezergue worked with Dave Bartholomew, he really learned his trade in the service, where he devised a system of arranging using a tuning fork to establish pitch. He returned to New Orleans and formed the Royal Dukes of Rhythm, a band strongly influenced by Dizzy Gillespie.

“I played trumpet back then, but I spent so much of my time arranging my chops got like a flat tire,” he says, laughing.

In order to get work, the band had to play the popular radio hits, so Quezergue began writing clever arrangements to familiar songs. A lot of musicians can get stuck in the rut of being a successful cover band, but Quezergue used the experience to further his art. By the early 1960s, he was working with the best musicians in the city, fashioning pop creations that became hits on their own.

One of Quezergue’s most successful associations was with Earl King, a collaboration that produced King’s recording of “Trick Bag” and Professor Longhair’s version of the Carnival classic “Big Chief.” King wrote that song, sang the vocal and delivered the haunting whistle of a solo while Longhair played piano.

“We were friends but I didn’t hang out with Earl, I didn’t have the time to hang out with anyone,” says Quezergue. “But when it came down to rehearsing and things like that, we were good buddies. We understood each other. That’s the way I was with everyone. I was never a hang out dude, drinking and partying and all that stuff. One thing we did together. He smoked Pall Malls and I smoked Pall Malls and sometime he’d smoke Kools and I’d take one if I was running out of Pall Malls. We didn’t participate in anything heavier than that.

“The thing with Fess is this: Fess, he had to sing live, he never did overdub as far as I know. I think that was one of the reasons Earl sang on ‘Big Chief.’ That was the first time I worked with the Professor. ‘Big Chief’ had five saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones and five rhythm parts. Artists weren’t used to working with bands like that. I guess that’s how I got the nickname ‘Creole Beethoven,’ not because I’m so brainy, it’s just that everything I did was so loud.

“The artists back in those days never used a big band, just one or two horns. So when they have to sing against something big, it’s a big surprise. I did something with the Wild Magnolias and the guy had been singing this song all his life and when I did it when it came time for him to come in, he couldn’t come in. Eventually he sang the song, but he was frightened at first because he wasn’t used to working with that many horns.”

As Quezergue’s reputation grew, especially after his top selling efforts at the Malaco Records studio, “Groove Me” with King Floyd and “Mr. Big Stuff” with Jean Knight, major recording artists from Paul Simon to Willie Nelson came in search of the Quezergue magic. He even got to revisit his big band roots on a pair of terrific Gatemouth Brown records, Gate Swings and American Music, Texas Style.

“I did two albums with Gatemouth Brown, big band horn arrangements, and Gate and I got along perfectly,” Quezergue recalls. “We used to sit down and he’d tell me, ‘You know I hate New Orleans music!’ I’d say ‘Well, Gate, why did you hire me? I’m a New Orleans arranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a New Orleans arranger when you arrange my stuff.’ I said, ‘But I’m from New Orleans.’ He said, ‘But you play my stuff the way I like to hear it.’ People hear it the way they want it. It’s not a case of me writing what other people want to hear, I hear what I hear. And the songs that he did, I heard them the way he did them. It wasn’t about putting or not putting a New Orleans style on it.”

Nevertheless, Quezergue knows exactly what it was Brown didn’t like about New Orleans music.

“He didn’t like a certain kind of beat that Smokey (Johnson) did, the back beat on the bass drum.” Johnson was the go-to drummer on many of Quezergue’s sessions, including the unforgettable instrumental “It Ain’t My Fault” that still serves as the intro and the outro for Quezergue’s live performances. The exchange that led to that song’s creation is a textbook illustration of Quezergue’s musical imagination at work.

“We had an office on Orleans Avenue and he came in and he said ‘Quiz’—he used to call me Quiz—he said, ‘I have something I want you to hear. I want you to record this on me.’ ‘Okay, let me hear it.’ He started to diddle with his hands on my desk—dump de-dump dump dump diddle ump de-dump dump dump. I said, ‘That’s a good beat.’ Where’s the melody?’ He said, ‘That’s where you come in!’ So while he was doing that, I had to come up with the melody to go with the beat. He was the drummer on ‘Big Chief.’ He hit that drum so hard, he had blood coming out between his thumb and forefinger.”

The guitarist on “Big Chief” was Mac Rebennack, who Quezergue went on to work with when Rebennack became Dr. John. Quezergue contributed to two of Dr. John’s greatest albums, Goin’ Back to New Orleans and Dis, Dat and D’Udder. On the latter project Quezergue’s developing visual impairment caused him to declare it his last project, but retirement didn’t suit this restless creative spirit.

“Man, to sit down in my room all day long and do nothing, I just can’t do that,” he says. “Give me a little stage or give me something to write even if I’m not on the stage. I can still do everything I used to, it just might take a little longer.”

But it’s well worth the wait.