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Obituary: Wardell Quezergue (1930-2011)

Wardell Quezergue. Photo by Greg Miles.

Wardell Quezergue. Photo by Greg Miles.

On the bright late summer morning of September 12 the crème fraiche façade of Corpus Christi-Epiphany Church gleamed optimistically amid this still-blighted Seventh Ward neighborhood along St. Bernard Avenue. Inside the packed church, many of the surviving players from the glory days of New Orleans R&B gathered to send off Wardell Quezergue, an arranger so gifted he was able to transform New Orleans music using only a pen and his signature instrument, a tuning fork.

Quezergue’s funeral didn’t generate the massive public event that peers like Ernie K-Doe and Snooks Eaglin precipitated, but it was impossible to ignore the number of musicians who turned out to pay their respects.

“I can look out and see all the faces of the artists and musicians who are here today,” said Rev. Godwin Akpan, who celebrated the Mass, “and know that his life has not been in vain.”

Most of the musicians on hand had personal as well as professional ties to Quezergue. Deacon John delivered a tribute to Quezergue during the ceremony, tracing a relationship that goes back to childhood.

“The first time I met Wardell Quezergue was when I was a little boy,” he said, placing Quezergue alongside Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew and Harold Battiste as the masterminds of New Orleans R&B. “My momma took me over to St. Mary’s Academy where my sisters played in the band. He was the band director. Later on I got to meet him professionally because Wardell wrote the string parts and did the piano playing on my very first recording session, ‘When I’m with You’ on the RIP label way back in 1962. He also did the arrangements on my last recording session, Deacon John’s Jump Blues and he can be seen conducting the orchestra at the live concert at the Orpheum. And also I’ve had the privilege of playing with Wardell on many of the recording sessions that he produced and arranged.

“Wardell was truly an inspiration and a tremendous asset to the music community,” Deacon John said. “He always tried to help somebody. He would never turn down a project. He gave his whole life to the promotion and promulgation of New Orleans culture. You can hear his signature on all of the recordings he produced and arranged. Wardell, he wouldn’t listen to the radio. He told me ‘I don’t want to listen to the radio because it’s going to mess up my mind. I don’t listen because it might make me think of that when I’m doing an arrangement, and I don’t want what I write to be like nothing else. I want to be influenced by what I hear in the real world.

“He was a prolific writer and arranger, one of the best minds this city has ever produced, and he came from such humble beginnings. He was born and raised in the Seventh Ward just like I was. Wardell was the Recording Secretary at the Negro Musicians Union when I first became a member in 1958. He was a lifelong member of the Musicians Union and he finally got to see me be President. I could talk about Wardell all night long but he was just a really nice guy. He never raised his voice and he knew how to get things done. Everybody in the house respected him.”

 

Mac Rebennack, who played in Wardell’s band the Royal Dukes of Rhythm long before he adopted the pseudonym of Dr. John, looked particularly solemn in a dark pinstripe suit as he left the church, stopping to greet his friend Smokey Johnson, who was seated in a wheelchair just outside the front door. Johnson was the drummer in Quezergue’s band when Mac played guitar with them.

Wardell Quezergue sheet music courtesy of Scott Billington.

Wardell Quezergue sheet music courtesy of Scott Billington.

“Me and Smokey and George French was his rhythm section right before I got shipped out of New Orleans,” said Rebennack. “We worked whatever gigs Wardell had and a lot of sessions with him. It was all cool. We backed Otis Redding when he came through and he had that first record he did, ‘These Arms of Mine.’ He was just starting out. Wardell didn’t even remember that. It cracks me up—somebody else said after all the people that the Royal Dukes of Rhythm backed up over a lot of years, it ain’t gonna be like he’s gonna remember one act out of a gajillion. He didn’t remember when I told him.”

Rebennack was filled with thoughts about Wardell, ranging from recording “Big Chief” with Professor Longhair (“Fess had never did a record where he did an overdub”) to a Joe Tex session the two did together that was never released, but which Rebennack recalled as one of the best things he ever did, to a track Wardell wrote for a session with Dave Bartholomew’s band.

“It was called ‘Concerto for Alto Sax’,” said Rebennack. “It was my favorite cut on that record. It just blew me away; Wardell just blew me away as an arranger. I played that record for two great arrangers, Slide Hampton and Joe Scott. Joe did all of the great stuff for Bobby Bland and Junior Parker at Duke and Peacock, and Slide Hampton did all that stuff with the great jazz bands. They both said he should be writing for Basie. They was right.”

Quezergue’s greatest moment with Dr. John may well have been the Grammy-winning Goin’ Back to New Orleans album, which opens with a jaw-dropping arrangement of Rebennack’s “Litanie Des Saints” inspired by Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Bamboula.”

“Wardell was like so special and so inspirational,” he said. “He was so spiritual in every direction; he was just an amazing cat. That’s the only record I ever had that was selling a whole lot of records in Africa and all around the Caribbean and all kind of places because it was a spiritual song. It was a spiritual piece and every time everything was done, it’s like it started from there.

Wardell Quezergue. Photo by Greg Miles.

Photo by Greg Miles.

“Everything I did with Wardell was a learning experience, from the stuff he did with the Neville Brothers, anybody we worked with, Earl King—it was always something special, something unique, it was always different. You never knew what to expect out of Wardell’s head. He’d take his tuning fork and write a chart; you never knew what to expect comin’ outta that chart. Even when he couldn’t see, when he was losing his eyesight, Wardell would dictate parts straight up. It was an amazing thing. His mind was amazing. He wrote scores in his head. I never did like that jacket for him ‘the Creole Beethoven’ because to me he was way more of anything than anybody could put a word on.”

When Dr. Ike Padnos asked Dr. John to play his old guitar-based material at the Ponderosa Stomp, Rebennack only agreed to do it when Padnos promised him Quezergue would be the arranger.

“I don’t think Mac was too enthused at the beginning, but he was happy with it at the end,” said Padnos as he joined the second line after the funeral. “Wardell had this uncanny ability when he was at a rehearsal. He could have the biggest band and he could always spot that one wrong note and he always had this tactful ability to point that out to the musician in a way that they wouldn’t get embarrassed but they understood what they had to do to get it right. It was remarkable to watch him take a song and shape it: Get this down. Okay, trumpets come in. Okay trombones. Gotta play that louder! You could just hand him anything and he knew what to do with it. How do you take ‘Morgus the Magnificent’ or ‘Storm Warning’ and arrange it for a big band? Wardell could do it.”

 

The second line after the funeral was a fitting tribute to Quezergue’s influence, a collection of many of the city’s greatest brass band musicians, including members of the Treme Brass Band, Preservation Hall, the Baby Boyz Brass Band and others. Roger Lewis was on baritone saxophone, Carl LeBlanc played banjo, Kermit Ruffins, Charlie Miller and James Andrews joined the trumpeters, Matt Perrine added sousaphone and the Bonerama front line played trombones.

“Wardell changed the way New Orleans music sounds,” said Mark Mullins, who writes arrangements for Bonerama. “I learned at a young age that an arranger’s stamp on a song can make or break it. Wardell did these treatments to New Orleans classics that are like a lesson book in how to take a great song and make it even greater.”

Quezergue’s total commitment to his art inspired the greatest loyalty in his musical peers.

“Any time Wardell called me for anything, I was gonna be there,” said Dr. John. “I don’t care what it was.”

His last call from Wardell was for a session with Will Porter, the last recording Quezergue worked on before his death.

“Wardell approved the final mixes of our project on Sunday, August 25,” said Porter, whose words about Quezergue’s historical importance at the funeral had members of the crowd shouting encouragement. “He cried and told me it was his best work. The tracks feature Leo Nocentelli, two duets with Dr. John, Bettye LaVette, Jimmy Haslip of the Yellowjackets, Barbara Lewis and the re-formed Womack Brothers. Twelve of the tracks are Bunchy Johnson’s last work. Doug Belote plays on the rest.”

Though Porter’s album is his last recording, Quezergue finished dictating the score of a final project within hours of his death, a second Creole Mass. As the mourners dispersed, saying final goodbyes, the church bells rang 12 times.

“He wrote a Passion of Christ thing,” said Dr. John. “That was kinda his goodbye. I really think there were some weird connections to all of that.”