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Across the Universe

Awadagin Pratt’s hope meets a collage of tragedy

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Rob Davidson
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Awadagin Pratt.

Awadagin Pratt was late for class at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University — a big-time, high-end music school in Baltimore. We have one of those in Rochester.

And as Pratt was running to class, a cop chased him down.

“I was on the steps of the school, he was demanding identification,” Pratt says. “The security guards were telling him I was a student. He had assumed, I guess, I was running from a crime or something. I said, when my white friends are running down the street, your colleagues ask if they’re OK? Not, like, what they’re doing.”

Then Pratt dropped the f-bomb on the cop. “For stopping me because I’m a Black guy running down the street.”

Pratt was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, and spent the night in jail. The next morning, he says, the charge was dropped for his promise to not sue for false arrest.

End of story? Not at all.

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Pratt will retell it in a multimedia presentation at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. “Awadagin Pratt: Black in America” is free, but you’ll need to get a ticket for a seat through the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Then Pratt returns to Kodak Hall on Thursday and Saturday to play piano with the RPO in “Rounds for Piano and String Orchestra,” a new composition by a young Black composer, Jessie Montgomery. Rochester will be the third public performance of the piece, which Pratt commissioned.

Pratt is a bit of a Renaissance man. Quite a bit, actually.

He plays chess, collects wine and enjoys fine dining, but also smokes his own meat. Last week, he wrangled some tri-tip steak and Alaskan spotted prawns through his 700-pound Texas offset smoker. Pratt calls his concert tours “food-focused” travel. A competitive tennis player who turned down a scholarship offer, Pratt follows sports closely: All of the teams in his hometown of Pittsburgh, and Formula 1 auto racing.

Exceptionalism runs in his family. Pratt’s parents were college professors, his father in nuclear physics, his mother in social work. Pratt became the first student in the Peabody’s 137-year history to receive diplomas in three performance areas -- piano, violin and conducting.

The 56-year-old Pratt has played in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, and on “Sesame Street.” He’s conducted orchestras around the world. Currently a professor of piano at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music — he lives in Cincinnati with his wife and daughter — Pratt has released a handful of albums, pretty heavy on the Bach.

“Black in America” emerged from Pratt’s forced isolation during the early days of the pandemic. The show opens with his recording with the St. Lawrence String Quartet of the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

Lovely, and upbeat, taking Pratt back to 1984, when he was 18 years old. “Optimism, happiness, joy of getting my first car,” he says. But “Black in America” is no joyride; it’s what he calls a “bait and switch.” When Pratt takes the stage to tell the story of his life, it’s stories of not only “Running while Black,” but the classic “Driving while Black.”

As a Black teenager with his first car, he could not escape Driving while Black experiences. The first time, he was startled, surprised, scared: “Why did I just get pulled over? There’s no foundation for why I was pulled over. I wasn’t speeding. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

But he soon learned the routine.

“Also part of it is,” Pratt says, “it happens to other Black friends of mine. It doesn’t happen to white friends of mine.”

“If you react with anger, you’re dead, right? If you react with anger, you will be shot by the police.”

And this crosses over into the public’s expectations of what a classical musician looks like. Are dreadlocks allowed?

“I guess my white colleagues are asked when they started,” Pratt says, “as opposed to why.”

Is it a fair question, given the RPO has only one Black musician, trumpeter Herb Smith?

“The question shows a limited perspective on what it means to be Black,” Pratt says. “The question seems to define what kind of musician a Black person should be.”

“I can’t speak for all Black people. But we develop a kind of resilience to these kinds of slights, and move on.”

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Robert Reck
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Pianist Awadagin Pratt performs.

Yet being “Black in America” is more than dealing with slights. The show features a 10-minute film by Alrick Brown of New York University, accompanying a recording of Pratt playing Liszt’s “Funérailles.” That’s French for funerals.

“It’s a depiction of Black people in film, and how the dehumanizing aspects of that mirror my story,” he says. Police dogs in Selma, and Montgomery, Alabama, turned loose on civil rights marchers. And on up to more recent events.

“A collage of tragedy, really,” he says. “Emmett Till’s casket, there’s a lot of stuff in there.”

If you’ve been paying attention, you know there’s a lot of stuff in there. As “Black in America” closes, Pratt steers the conversation toward “possible solutions. Social ramifications of racism.”

And what are the possible solutions?

A long pause. And a spoiler alert from Pratt.

“I don’t know.”

“I’m not that hopeful,” he says. “I was slightly more hopeful after we watched George Floyd get murdered, and in the aftermath of that there would be actual changes.

“But it keeps happening.”