When Al Blanton called and asked me if I would write an article for Black Belt Living magazine about an organist from Selma who had attended the University of Alabama and then The Eastman School of Music in New York, he was surprised when I instantly knew he was referring to Quentin. Writing offers many serendipitous gifts and the opportunity to discover and share an old friend’s exceptional story is certainly one of them.
One year before Quentin Lane was born at the Burwell Infirmary in Selma in 1949, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the United States military. When Lane was 5, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place in public education. One year later, Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus sparked the boycott which brought forth the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Perhaps Quentin was born in an era reflecting the very worst of times, bloody, murderous, and frightening. More likely, he was born at just the right time to be raised and nurtured by a community of allies — family, friends, and strangers who became friends. Their support and encouragement launched this gifted musician on a 40-year career journey across the country, around the world, and ultimately back to Selma.
A Marengo County native who earned a high school diploma, a rare accomplishment for an African American woman in the Black Belt at that time, Quentin’s mother, Sarah Elizabeth Moore McElroy, moved to Selma in 1947. Essentially bringing him up by herself in his early years, she worked as a hair dresser in her own shop. A strong woman of substantial faith, she graciously conducted her life true to her conscience and raised Quentin with a firm but loving hand.
One of Sarah Moore’s customers, Elvira McElroy, and her husband, the Rev. Robert C. McElroy, as Quentin noted, “took a shine” to him when he was a youngster and joined his mother in raising him. While speaking of this relationship, he explained that he was truly privileged to be guided by this solid trio and added, “We were really a unit.” Fondly and almost reverentially remembering the McElroys, Quentin described Rev. McElroy as a pastor, “wonderful preacher,” and a “builder of congregations.” After Mrs. McElroy’s death, Sarah Moore married Rev. McElroy in 1973.
Quentin’s musical training began with singing. By three, he was Ms. Ethel Dinkins’ piano student at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Selma. He gave his first solo vocal recital when he was six and studied piano with Ms. Pauline Dinkins Anderson, an Oberlin College graduate, from age 7 to 17.
Quentin started playing the organ at his church, West Trinity Baptist, when he was 9. On Sunday mornings in his early teens, he played the organ for “The Family Hour,” a local radio program with the theme “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”
Quentin sang in the choir at R.B. Hudson High School and by 15 was the choir’s sole accompanist.
In 1965, after the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, a group of religious leaders who had witnessed the march organized a cross-country tour for the Hudson Concert Choir, sending them out as good will ambassadors, first to the east coast, and then to California. In Pasadena, Marie Taylor, a piano teacher and civil rights activist, heard Quentin play and followed the choir to Santa Barbara to hear him again. During that concert he played a “true pipe organ” for the first time and admitted he was immediately “hooked.” Sensing his potential, Ms. Taylor offered to provide the funds for him to study the organ.
In carrying out Ms. Taylor’s request that he find the best organist to be his teacher, Quentin talked with and played for Kay Haley, the organist at First Presbyterian Church in Selma, as he had heard her perform on the radio. Mrs. Haley ultimately made arrangements for him to study with Warren Hutton, the head of the organ department at the University of Alabama.
Every Saturday morning for his last two years of high school, Quentin traveled to Tuscaloosa to study with Hutton. To make the trip more efficient, the McElroys bought him a car and he drove, accompanied by Miss Inez Carson, whom he characterized as a friend and “surrogate grandmother.” Starting only two years after Governor George Wallace made his stand in the schoolhouse door on the University of Alabama campus, Quentin thoughtfully remembered the significance of those lessons. “That was the beginning of my road to Damascus, the very beginning.”
After graduating from high school in 1967 as a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist, Quentin majored in organ at the University of Alabama, continuing his studies with Warren Hutton. Earning a bachelor of music degree in organ with honors in 1971, he continued his music education at The Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. In 1973 he received a masters of music degree in organ performance and music literature. Quentin remained in Rochester for another year, continuing his organ studies with David Craighead at Eastman and becoming the first full-time Director of Music at Allendale Columbia School.
Quentin emphasized, “The church has really been the focal point most of my life.” So he was pleased to return to Alabama to serve as consultant in music for the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama for 10 years and as organist\director of music at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham. He also worked for Parisian for about three and a half years as an assistant buyer and fashion coordinator for print and film advertising. The highlight of this adventure was producing catalogs shot in New York City and Cozumel.
To Europe and back
While he worked for Parisian, Quentin only performed casually. But when a friend offered him the opportunity to play in Italy, he turned his attention back to the organ. In March 1982 he performed at San Giusto Cathedral in Trieste for a crowd of about 600 in a program highlighted by Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C Minor, a piece he learned with Warren Hutton when he was 16.
Quentin lived in New York City for eight years where he became Music Administrator and Assisting Organist for Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. During this time, the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, under the direction of Gerre Hancock, Organist and Master of Choristers, performed three choral evensongs for the British Broadcasting Company’s Radio 3, the first American choir selected for this honor, and Quentin was the organ accompanist for these recorded live performances. He was also part of the team which worked with the boys from the Saint Thomas choir in recording the soundtrack theme for the movie Working Girl.
While in New York, Quentin also worked with the Boys Choir of Harlem in the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors and accompanied them in Mozart’s Requiem Mass with soprano Shirley Verrette at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Through his friendship with Saint Thomas’ English rector, he spent some holidays and several summers living in Bath, England, while performing in London and smaller towns as well.
The first six years of the 1990s found Quentin back in Birmingham employed as the executive director of Dr. Walter Whitehurst’s medical practice. During this time he sang in the choir at Cathedral Church of the Advent and later became Organist and Master of the Choir for Saint Andrews Church. The challenge of working for the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew, a church formed by the merging of an African American congregation and a white congregation in a downtown setting, drew Lane to Wilmington, Delaware. Then he lived and did freelance work in Philadelphia before returning to Selma in 2006 to take care of his mother in the last months of her life.
Home to Selma
After his mother’s death, Selma gently opened her heart and welcomed Quentin back into her life. He began playing the organ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where he first visited at age 15 in 1965, sitting in the back row on Easter Sunday with Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a 26-year-old seminary student who came to Alabama to work in the Civil Rights Movement and died that August in Lowndes County protecting a seventeen year old African American female from a shotgun blast. He also accepted the position of organist and choir director of the senior choir and the men’s choir at Brown Chapel AME Church.
Today, Quentin Lane, a tall, elegant, impeccably dressed gentleman, whose only sign of age is the merest graying of the temples, shares his passion for music at Selma University as an instructor in the music department and as concert accompanist for the choir. He continues to play at Saint Paul’s as an assisting organist where his long, slender fingers glide over the keys as his lovingly played music moves throughout the gorgeous, serene sanctuary and lures the listener into a state of comforting calm.
Traveling across the country and the globe, performing with a joyful soul and his own personal flair, in churches, at weddings, and for the musical celebrations of significant family events, Quentin creates programs which feature a varied array of composers- Porter, Beethoven, Gershwin, Debussy, Kern, Bach. He recently played the piano for “A Little Mid-Day Music in Celebration of the Life of Kathryn Windham Tucker” at Selma’s Church Street United Methodist Church, an event which included “The Entertainer” as well as “I’ll Fly Away.”
Whether performing Bach’s Fantasia in G Major for an audience or improvising alone on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of his mother’s favorites, Quentin Lane faithfully harbors the spirit of those who made his extraordinary round trip journey possible.
With grace and ease, he coaxes that spirit from his heart to the keys, transforming it into glorious music.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890