Awadagin Pratt stops traffic on Charles Street.
He's got the kind of looks that do it -- dressed completely in black, he resembles a matinee idol in dreadlocks -- but that's not the reason cars are braking and people are coming over to throw their arms around him.
Last Tuesday, when the 26-year-old Peabody pianist won the prestigious Naumburg Competition in New York, he became the first African-American classical instrumentalist ever to win first prize in an international competition.
"None of this means anything to me yet," says Pratt, whose victory will bring him 40 dates, including important concerts in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. He has a check from the Naumburg Foundation in his pocket for $5,000 -- but he doesn't have a bank account to cash it.
"I'm going to have an income for the first time in my life," adds Pratt, whose telephone service was turned off two years ago and was never restored and whose simple lifestyle and lack of money -- he was not able to enter this year's William Kapell Competition because he didn't have the $60 admission fee -- has been a source of perpetual concern to his friends and his teachers at Peabody.
Pratt's dreadlocks -- which have been attracting attention in the Mount Vernon neighborhood that surrounds the Peabody Conservatory ever since he began to grow them four years ago -- are the symbol of what makes him different from ordinary competition winners. Like Sampson, whose specialness to God was signified by his uncut hair, Pratt's dreadlocks are a metaphor for his imagination, for his independence from deadening classical music conventions, for his willingness to pursue his own paths -- and for his blackness.
Even before last week's victory in the Naumburg, there was never any question about his talent.
A vision of music
"Awadagin has a vision of music in his head, and he strives to realize that vision when most musicians don't even try," says the great violist Martha Katz, who played chamber music with him last summer in Canada's Banff Festival.
"His best playing was some of the most spectacular I've ever heard," says Ursula Oppens, a well-known pianist who was one of the jurors at the Naumburg. "If he keeps developing, he'll be one of the most exciting pianists in the world."
But Pratt's blackness -- his father was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa, and the name Awadagin originates there -- is important, too. Although black singers have long been prominent in the operatic world, except for the pianist Andre Watts there is not a single African-American instrumental soloist of international stature, and Pratt seems poised to become the second black classical superstar.
"He's a publicist's dream!" says an important New York classical music publicist. "The day is ripe for black soloists because orchestras are aware of how few minority musicians there are and are hungry for them."
"I don't think of myself as a pioneer -- Andre Watts was that," Pratt says. "But there's a lot I'd like to open up for other [black] people -- to show them that there are more possibilities for themselves than they may have thought."
That so few blacks pursued careers in classical music did not stop his parents from encouraging the young Pratt.
"That he enjoyed it and that his teacher thought he had talent was all that mattered to us," Mildred Pratt, a professor of social work at Illinois State University in Normal, says about how she and her husband -- then a professor of physics at the same institution and now a consultant -- treated their son's ambitions.
"He came from a background in which he was given the idea that if you have a talent you have a duty to use it, and that it doesn't matter what color you are," says Gellert Modos, professor of piano at Illinois State and one of Pratt's first teachers.
Talent in many areas
"The child was incredible -- extremely musical and extremely expressive way beyond his years. All I ever worried about was that he would spread himself too thin because he was so talented in so many ways and because everything he did, he did with such intensity."
Modos was not the last to worry. Pratt is the only triple major in Peabody's history and the only musician to have won three Performer's Certificates, in piano, violin and conducting. Many students and teachers at the school regard him as perhaps the most talented pianist there, but he is also a gifted violinist and he is considered to be perhaps even more talented as a conductor than as a pianist.
"In a school where students have heavy schedules and complain about having too much in the way of orchestra rehearsals, they clamor to play in any orchestra Pratt might organize," says Peabody dean Eileen Cline.
But there was concern that he did too much. The year he arrived at Peabody -- 1986 -- was the year he tied Kevin Kenner, then the conservatory's pianistic big gun, in the concerto competition. The next year, however, he threw himself into the conducting program, while still continuing to study piano and violin.