Jill Meyer and Awadagin Pratt: The marriage of business + art

Awadagin Pratt and Jill Meyer

Awadagin Pratt and Jill Meyer

By JOHN FAHERTY

It would be easy to look at Jill Meyer and Awadagin Pratt and see two Cincinnatis. Meyer is small and blond and business. Pratt is big and dreadlocked and music.

But sitting in their North Avondale home, it is immediately clear that the two of them see the connection, actually the interdependence, of those two worlds. Pratt and Meyer know you cannot have strong arts without significant support from business and that you cannot attract and retain talented people to work in the region without vibrant arts.

They may see the importance of these connections because they are both accustomed to breaking new ground. When you are a “first” you sometimes specifically look for ways to bring people together, to find common ground.

Meyer, a Cincinnati native, is president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. Prior to taking on that position in September 2015, Meyer was member-in-charge of Frost Brown Todd’s Cincinnati office. She was the first woman to ever lead the law office. She is the second woman to be CEO of the Chamber.

Pratt was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Normal, Ill. He is professor of piano and artist-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

Pratt became renowned in 1992 when he surprised, if not shocked, the classical music world by winning the Naumburg International Piano Competition. The Naumburg is not a big deal, it is a huge deal. Pratt was the first African-American pianist to win the competition. He has since played with major orchestras around the globe and at the White House. He has even played the Alphabet song on Sesame Street.

Awadagin pronounces his name “ah-wah-dodge-in.” Jill pronounces her name “jill.” It goes without saying that this is a relationship that faced challenges and raised eyebrows. Yes, Meyer is a Bengals fan and Pratt remains true to the Steelers.

Despite that, the couple found love and happiness after meeting in 2011 at The Lackman in Over-the-Rhine. Pratt saw her sitting in a window seat on Vine Street and they started talking. Who was more smitten first remains a matter of some debate. Still, they fell in love, got married and now have a 2-year-old son Ayrton.

Meyer left her law office to take over at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in part because of her unshakeable faith in the potential, both realized and untapped, of this region.

She came into the job with an existing passion for the arts, and an awareness of how important the arts community is to her hometown’s past, present and future.

Pratt and Meyer were at the time already co-chairs of the 2016 ArtsWave Community Campaign. It is the largest community campaign for the arts in the country, both in total contributions and number of donors. Last year the campaign brought in $12,250,000 and Meyer has already said she would like to top that number.

This is a major commitment, but for Pratt and Meyer it is a passion project. This makes perfect sense for Pratt, a man who makes his living on the piano, but Meyer makes her living growing business. Yet she sees no disconnect in the mission.

“Art is not just fluff and nice to have,” Meyer said, sitting at her dining room table with son Ayrton busy spelling and climbing and asking lots of lots of questions. “Now people see the absolute necessity for a vibrant arts community in order to have a strong business environment.”

Pratt agrees. “You cannot have one without the other. You can for a time, but people – especially young people – want both.”

Cincinnati has benefited for decades from strong and extraordinarily well supported arts. The Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and the May Festival Chorus at Music Hall make us important. Public art from ArtWorks, Lumenocity in the summer, the Carnegie in Covington make us interesting.

And the creative class supporting them can make the entire community better. Pratt sees this every day when he sits with his students at the piano.

“The most important thing I teach is empathy,” Pratt said. “You have to feel Bach. You have to feel Beethoven. When you are really teaching, the student is learning the qualities of humanity.”

ArtsWave’s Blueprint for Collective Action will address all of this. The program will engage young professionals and creatives with the idea of accomplishing these five measures:

  • Put Cincinnati on the map.
  • Deepen roots in our region.
  • Bridge cultural divides.
  • Enliven neighborhoods.
  • Fuel creativity and learning.

Bridging cultural divides in this region is increasingly important for Meyer and Pratt because they are raising their child in this community.

Pratt knows there have been challenges in the region. In 2004, CCM offered Pratt a professorship.

At the time, Pratt was reluctant. The police shootings and riots of 2001 were still echoing across the city. “I was leery, a little bit,” Pratt said. “The Police Department was under federal oversight at that time.

Plus, Pratt was not sure if he needed Cincinnati. He was already a star. The New York Times wrote of his transcendent performances.

The Los Angeles Times reviewer nearly ran out of adjectives when writing about the night Pratt sat at at his piano at the Ambassador Auditorium “with a hugely challenging program before him, and then proceeded to conquer it, not so much with physical aggression, but with intellectual aggression.

“No doubt about it, Pratt is a thinker. His performances, of music by Franck, Beethoven, Bach and Brahms, were meticulously thought-out affairs and just as carefully executed, but were never merely inward looking: He projected his thoughts with dramatic immediacy.”

The Washington Post wrote glowingly of Pratt and his style: “His hands don’t hover expectantly above the keyboard before he begins. He doesn’t wait for the audience to settle down. In fact he barely pauses between movements (or between pieces themselves, for that matter). At the National Gallery on Sunday, he played a big program of Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Franck and Bach with the sort of assured competence and musical authority that sweeps listeners along with him rather than asking for their compliance.”

But the pull of CCM was strong. The conservatory’s reputation is celebrated across the country even if it is sometimes under-appreciated in its own city.

Pratt took the job because teaching matters and because the additional title of artist-in-residence would allow him to travel and perform.

From the start, Cincinnati began to grow on Pratt; he liked the architecture, he liked the commitment to the arts, he liked his job and he liked the food. “I gained the Cincinnati 15 pounds.”

Pratt’s role in the city’s arts scene also grew. He is now artistic director of the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati and artistic director of the Art of the Piano Festival at CCM.

His work here is a continuation of his attempts to make the classical arts more inclusive. He knew from the start, when he was almost invariably the only black kid showing up at recitals, that some music can feel unwelcoming or daunting.

The pianos were big, the halls were hushed, the dress code seemed foreign. When Pratt was coming up, he played by the established rules. He had a closet of jackets and dress shirts and ties and he wore them to every performance.

As soon as he won Naumburg, however, Pratt began to feel liberated. And obligated. He started getting more recitals at more established halls and he was making real money. He began to think of the artists coming up behind him.

“I went through a period of really being angry at the elitism of classical music,” Pratt said. “There are too many shut doors.”

The tie came off, the jacket came off, he played more aggressively and more confidently. When he played at the White House, he sat down at the piano and played Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor as you might expect, but he did so in a loud and lovely shirt by Gianni Versace. He was classic and contemporary.

“I know how alienating the whole process can feel,” Pratt said. “I wanted to lower boundaries. I wanted everybody to know they could do it.

FEAT-Meyer-Pratt-cPratt’s time in Cincinnati only confirmed his belief that the arts can and must bring people together. All people. He sees more diversity in his students. He is hard on them, requiring commitment and discipline. Meyer is quick to point out that Pratt’s students thrive, that they win competitions at CCM and at competitions across the country.

Meyer’s road to this point – where art, business, community and inclusion are so important – has had fewer twists, but is not less interesting.

She grew up on Cincinnati’s West Side and has stayed entrenched in her community. The youngest of nine daughters, Meyer graduated from Seton High School, the College of Mount St. Joseph, and finally, Salmon P. Chase College of Law.

Meyer moved downtown, on the first wave of young professionals to move back into the core, and started work at Frost Brown Todd. That is when things got very interesting.

“As a young associate at a big firm, you are bombarded with opportunities to join organizations and to help, and I think I said yes to all of them,” Meyer said.  

It was, of course, too much. And for Meyer it was not strategic. She took a step back and decided what areas most interested her, and tried to figure out where she could make the most difference. Ultimately she focused on downtown revitalization, the arts, human services and inclusion.  

And at work, she moved up the firm’s ladder very quickly. Becoming partner and then, at age 36, in charge of the Cincinnati office’s 150 lawyers. Did being young, and the first woman in that role feel like a burden?

“I was young, and I was a woman. I still am,” Meyer laughed. “But I didn’t feel the weight of it. I had a lot of support and felt like maybe I had an opportunity to do things differently.”

Meyer wants to do the same thing at the Chamber. The organization’s purpose is simple and clearly stated. “To grow our economy and community, stimulating opportunities for everyone.”

The Chamber has a series of pillars, but diversity and inclusion is not one of them. Meyer said that is not an accident. “In our strategic plan, you will see that inclusion will be part of everything we do. It does not get a pillar. It is part of everything we do.”

And they will do it here. Awadagin Pratt has a little of the classic troubadour in him. He is an artist, and artists go to where the show is. Where will he be in five years? “Right here,” Pratt said. And ten? “That is hard to know.”

Then Meyer walked in from the kitchen with Ayrton. She had heard enough. “I’m a Cincinnati girl,” Meyer said. “I will not entertain the idea of living anywhere else.”

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