WASHINGTON – Carlos Santana, the Mexican-American guitarist and songwriter who pioneered the genre of Latin-infused rock, and Billy Joel, the New York-bred piano man who became one of the best-selling musicians of all time, are among the five artists to receive the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors.
The honorees, announced Thursday by the Kennedy Center, also include opera singer Martina Arroyo, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and actress Shirley MacLaine.
The Kennedy Center honors will take place Dec. 8 and will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 29 at 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Notably, this year’s slate of honorees includes two artists of Hispanic descent, a historic selection for the Kennedy Center, which was criticized last year by some Hispanic advocacy groups for the lack of Latino artists chosen for the honors. Prior to this year, only two of the 186 honorees since 1978 were of Hispanic origin.
Controversy erupted after a fiery exchange between Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, in which Kaiser used profane language. Kaiser apologized, and the Center took action, amending the selection process by creating an artist review panel and opening the nomination process up to the public on its website. With two artists of Hispanic descent among the honorees, the process appears to have fostered greater ethnic diversity.
“It was a priority,” said George Stevens Jr., producer and creator of the Kennedy Center Honors, of increasing input via an artist review panel and the public. “The greatest difference was that we invited recommendations from the public, and 25,000 people made recommendations. That was a valuable enhancement.”
In a statement, Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein said, “The Kennedy Center has sought to honor individuals whose accomplishments have affected the cultural life of the United States. This wider range of people involved in the process has resulted in the selection of five distinguished, accomplished and deserving honorees.”
The Kennedy Center would not detail how the selection of artists differed this year or whether the revised process led to greater diversity among the honorees. Stevens also declined to comment on the process, reiterating that the choice of artists is based on one criterion: excellence.
Arroyo, 76, raised in Harlem by an African-American mother and Puerto Rican father, was among a generation of opera singers who broke the color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera. Arroyo won the Metropolitan Opera’s “Auditions in the Air” in 1958 and made her Carnegie Hall debut the same year, a performance applauded by the New York Times for a “voice of amplitude.” With a classic spin to soprano voice, she excelled across the operatic repertory, performing Verdi, Puccini and Schoenberg. In the ’60s and ’70s, she performed in the U.S. and across Europe’s great houses including Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan and Covent Garden in London.
Reached by phone in New York, Arroyo said becoming a Kennedy Center honoree put her “out of her own realm.” Asked whether the award carries meaning for Latino or African-American opera singers, she said, “I hope so. I hope that anybody who identifies and says, ‘I want to have her career,’ puts their hand out.’ ”
Shortly after Arroyo took Europe by storm, Santana, 66, was playing his distinct brand of Latin-infused jazz, blues and rock on the San Francisco club circuit. The Santana Blues Band rocked Woodstock in 1969, with Santana’s rendition of “Soul Sacrifice” becoming an international hit. His career would soar shortly after that appearance, with three chart-topping albums and the behemoth “Supernatural” which swept the 2000 Grammys with nine awards and birthed a new generation of Santana fans.
Of being named an honoree, Santana exclaimed via phone from his home in Las Vegas, “Can you believe it? Fortunately, I was sitting down when I heard the news, and my heart just expanded with gratitude.”
Jazz will also have its place at the Kennedy Center Honors with the selection of Herbie Hancock, 73, the pianist and band leader whose music has spanned six decades.
Born in Chicago, the piano prodigy appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 11 and then taught himself jazz piano, defining the genre throughout his career. He joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1963 and wrote the albums “Empyrean Isles” in 1964 and “Maiden Voyage” a year later: works that transformed the jazz canon. A prolific composer, he won an Oscar for the jazz score of “Round Midnight” and has won 14 Grammys since 1984.
Hancock was on the verge of tears upon hearing that he received the honor.
“To think I had been selected among that list … people, people I’ve admired over the years, … I was shocked,” he said.
The Kennedy Center is honoring another master of the piano, Billy Joel, who became one of the most prolific pop music writers of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, writing such hits as “Piano Man” “My Life” and “Only the Good Die Young.”
This year’s list of honorees also includes an Arlington, Va., native who left the region for New York in the 1950s and has been working steadily on screens and stages ever since. MacLaine, 79, the prolific film actor, won the Academy Award for “Terms of Endearment” and earned four nominations. Known for her longevity and range, with roles as diverse as the “The Apartment” and “Steel Magnolias,” her film and stage career has spanned seven decades.
Still a working actor, she appears on “Downton Abbey” and will star with Christopher Plummer in the upcoming film “Elsa and Fred.”