The genius and the humility of Wardell Quezergue

finney    Wardell Quezergue was 80 and living at Chateau de Notre Dame. The musical artist known as “The Creole Beethoven” – a man who had written rhythm and blues standards that enriched the careers of Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, the Dixie Cups and Dr. John – was blind.
    Even without a piano in his small apartment, Quezergue could hear the music. The syncopated notes popping inside his head were crisp and fertile, bursting forth in Technicolor splashes like Walt Disney’s “Fantasia.”
    “He would take a tuning fork, stick it in his ear, and the music would just come pouring out,” said Dr. Jerry Goolsby, director of graduate programs for the College of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. “Wardell would say the music came through him, not from him.”
    Quezergue (pronounced ka-ZAIR) didn’t need a piano. He had his mind and his fingers to keep the beat, and he had his son, Brian Quezergue, at his side, to transcribe the notes.
    “When he lost his eyesight, I became his eyes,” Brian said of his father, who died Sept. 6, 2011, at age 81, just a few days after humming and tapping out the final notes with his fingers for his final masterpiece, “The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
    Gary Ault first met Quezergue when he was a member of The Dameans, the singing group from Notre Dame Seminary that ushered in a new style of congregational music after Vatican II. The Dameans were stumped in their search for a musical arranger who could polish their work. Ault met one day with his cousin's husband, Marshall Sehorn, a partner of Allen Toussaint, to see if he knew anyone who could throw the group a lifeline.
    “Try Wardell,” Seehorn suggested.
    “Here we were, meeting with this black man arranger – who helped write ‘Barefootin’’ and ‘Iko Iko’ and all these other things – and we asked, ‘Wardell, do you think you can do this for five priests?’” Ault said, laughing. “He said, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ But we were pretty nervous.”
    Every few weeks, as the studio date for recording the album approached, Ault would check in on Quezergue’s progress.
    “I was dying a thousand deaths,” Ault said. “On the day we were going to the studio to record, I picked him up and I asked, ‘Wardell, can I hear what you have?’ And he said, ‘Oh, no, don’t worry,’ and he’s still scribbling notes on his sheets. The rest is history.”
    Quezergue went on to arrange nine Dameans albums.
    Quezergue’s interior life was a marvel to his family and closest friends. As a lifelong parishioner at Corpus Christi, he was devoutly Catholic and attended daily Mass. During the Korean War, he was stationed in Tokyo, arranging music for military bands, when his unit was called to the front lines. His commanding officer told him to stay behind to write music, and Quezergue’s replacement died in combat.
    It took nearly 50 years, but Quezergue wrote “A Creole Mass” in 2000 to honor his fallen commrade.
    With his health failing, Quezergue called Ault to tell him about his final dream. He wanted to do a composition highlighting the last words of Christ before his death.
    “We started talking about it, and then he said, ‘Let’s do the whole thing,’” Ault said, meaning the resurrection had to be included. “He picked out the passages he wanted. He’d say, ‘What’s the one about the apostle leaning on Jesus’ chest?’ And I’d say, ‘That comes from here.’ And then he’d say, ‘What about when the apostle cut off somebody’s ear? We’ve got to get that one in.’
    “And that’s how it went. It was amazing. He wrote measure by measure. After I recited something into the tape recorder, he would beat his fingers to keep time, and when I left, he would do the music in his head and then had Brian write it down.”
    Brian Quezergue said the tedious process sometimes led to temporary civil wars.
    “My family obligations and my job prevented me from working as much as he would have liked me to,” Brian said. “Before ‘The Passion’ was completed, I was fired and put out of his apartment numerous times. Once, he even put my son out of his apartment – and he was only about 3 or 4 – but I had to make him a cup of coffee before we were officially dismissed.”
     Quezergue’s final work – which debuted on Palm Sunday in Corpus Christi Church – is a glorious mix of classical and New Orleans musical styles, with an Amen and an Alleluia that soar to the heavens. Ault noted at Quezergue’s funeral that those two words – Amen and Alleluia – do not appear in the Gospel passion or resurrection narratives. But they summarized Quezergue’s life.
    “I lose count of the number of times (Alleluia) is sung, but it goes on and on in majestic and second-line style, so appropriate because this is how his memory among us will be perpetuated,” Ault said.
    Quezergue’s genius was his art, but he was defined by his humility. He was always in the background, the way a sotto voce flute or a clarinet is indispensable to a master work.
    “Wardell never took the credit,” Goolsby said. “When he passed, the New York Times gave him a half-page, and the New York Times doesn’t give a half-page to vice presidents. Wardell was recognized as a giant among giants.”
    “His genius was a gift from God,” Brian Quezergue said. “He was basically able to write the music that went through him, and he made it seem effortless. I cannot help but wonder why he’s not a rich man, but I’ve grown to understand that money was not the driving force behind his work. It was his music and his willingness to help people.”
    He could see – and write music – with his eyes closed. His vision opened our hearts.
    The cover photo of Wardell Quezergue was taken by Jacob Blickenstaff; www.33-13.com.

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