Shane Morrow has come a long way from "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
On a recent afternoon he sat at the 19th-century Emerson piano in the sunroom of his Brainerd home, playing and singing jazz classics such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Summertime."
Morrow, a 42-year-old performing artist, has been playing music since he was a child in Fairfield County, Conn. His great-grandmother insisted he learn.
"She told me at a very young age, 'You're going to learn how to play that piano, because that piano will not only bring you peace, that piano will always keep you working.' "
"Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" was the first song he learned. From there, he developed a love of performing and ventured beyond the piano.
"I did my first audition at the age of 12 and started performing at the same time. I was just about 13 when my great-grandmother finally allowed me to move outside of church and really venture into showcasing my own talent. I just had the performance bug."
Morrow was raised in Connecticut by his grandmother and great-grandmother. His mother was a teenager when he was born and his father, barely in his 20s, was a Black Panther who was shot and killed, he said. Morrow said he always had a relationship with his mother, who lives in Atlanta, but sought to strengthen it in his 20s, after his grandmothers died.
"I realized I would not be able to grow spiritually, mentally without being able to recapture some type of bond. I'm very blessed," he said. "My grandmother and my great-grandmother gave my mom a great alternative. We have a better understanding now that I'm older."
It was the desire to be closer to family, including his mother and some relatives in Cleveland, Tenn., that brought Morrow to Chattanooga in 2003. After earning a bachelor's degree in social services from the University of Connecticut, he had spent years working for an HIV and AIDS organization, first as a volunteer, then as a case manager and finally as its director.
Years of working with HIV/AIDS patients helped drive him to want to continue to make a contribution to his community.
"My first passion was always performing arts," he said. "I think community outreach is universal. Trying to make a positive impact within your community can go in many different ways. So what I tied in was how to spread the word to underserved populations. How can I reach out to become a bridge?"
He has found a way to bridge what he loves to do with his desire to serve his community.
Upon his arrival in Chattanooga, Morrow sought out a network for performance and creative endeavors. His search took him to the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, where he earned a role in "A Raisin in the Sun."
Following that, he looked for other opportunities within the city, especially for minority artists.
"I didn't see much," he said. "So I thought to myself, 'Is it because I don't know where the network is inside this city, or is it because we have a lack of those types of venues?'"
And thus The Creative Underground was born. Morrow's goal, he said, is to create diversity through creativity.
"There are so many ways we can be a community," he said, "I hope at the end of the day that folks will say The Creative Undergound made a difference in trying to unite us together, exposing the contributions from underserved populations and exposing that to the community at large."
His original intent, to begin a networking group, "blossomed" into showcases around town. Morrow worked to form alliances with established organizations, like the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and the Hunter Museum of American Art. Recently, he wrapped up "Sing, Mahalia, Sing," a gospel musical about the life of Mahalia Jackson, and he has established monthly showcases at Blue Orleans restaurant.
Morrow seeks to provide opportunities for young people through the performing arts. For each project, he said, he works to actively recruit a young person to be involved with the production.
"I feel that if we can give these young folks an opportunity to learn about the lighting, to learn about the technical support, giving them an opportunity to look beyond the parameters of their communities," he said.
* Career: Performing artist and founder of The Creative Underground.
* Age: 42.
* Hometown: Fairfield County, Conn.
* Favorite role: Othello.
* Favorite musicians: Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole.
* Hobbies: Cooking and vintage record collecting.
Last year, Morrow was dealt a blow that affected his perspective. He was diagnosed with lymphoma.
He's in treatment now, but he calls himself a cancer survivor.
"I'm still in it," he said. "I don't mind sharing that. I'm living with cancer. I'm beating cancer, and I'm blessed with that. I want it out there."
He remembers a line his grandmother used to tell him, a Geoffrey Chaucer quote: "Time and tide wait for no man."
Years ago, he said, a client told him HIV was a lifesaver. Morrow didn't understand it at the time.
"He said, 'I realize now the joy of living.' "
He gets it now.
"I realize now the joy of living."
* On working with young people: "I started working with a young man about two months ago. We've been taking a look at not just the piano but listening to music in general. I try to stay as open as possible to his questions. He's 13 years of age; there are many different directions this young man could go. He's from a single-parent home; she just wanted to find something for him to be actively involved in before he gets onto another road. What better for me to do than to assist this young lady with her child and to do it through music? His focus before was never on trying to find alternatives; it was on trying to stay out of trouble."
* On cutting funding for the arts: "If we decide we cut funding totally, what alternative do these children have? We have folks complaining that kids are out too late at night. Perhaps if we had some active programs, that could be an alternative for the kids."
* On how he became involved with HIV/AIDS work: "I had a good friend who died of AIDS. Toward the end, he did share that he was dying. I look back and think that if he'd given us an opportunity to help him during his rough days, his quality of life would have been better. That's when I started to volunteer heavily. Then I worked in pediatric AIDS. I had a child who was 12 years old [who] was born with it. His parents had died, and he lived with his grandmother. There were so many similarities to myself to a certain degree. I connected to this child. It changed my whole life."
* On what he's learned from his mother, who was badly burned in an accident when she was 3: "You can never judge anyone on the physical level. I never saw the scars because she was my mother. She helped me understand about the inner strength of your spirit. She's comfortable. I think she found the inner peace she needed. I think it's hard to live your life with those scars. I can't imagine. It's one thing to be African-American, but to be African-American and handicapped in a way that's always seen, I can't imagine."
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...