The 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, announced Wednesday, salutes four architects of music — from the improvisational saxophone of Sonny Rollins to the Broadway warmth of Barbara Cook, the tender cello of Yo-Yo Ma and the pulsing anthems of Neil Diamond.
The center has also selected actor Meryl Streep, who has sung in a few movies but is much better known for her flawless interpretations of characters over the past 30 years.
When the letters from the Kennedy Center arrive, even artists who have been in the spotlight for decades are a little taken aback. “I couldn’t believe it but it actually said I was chosen as one of the Kennedy Center Honorees,” said Diamond in a phone interview. “And it told me to keep my mouth shut.” Now Diamond, 70, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., can tell his mother, who is in her 90s and attends most of his concerts.
The Honors are given the first weekend of December in ceremonies at the State Department and the White House with an evening of all-star salutes to the Honorees, hosted by Caroline Kennedy at the Kennedy Center. And, in a musical coincidence, Diamond’s anthem “Sweet Caroline” was inspired by Caroline Kennedy.
“You can look at the people chosen this year, and this is the 34th year and say arguably they are the best at what they do,” said George Stevens, Jr., the co-producer of the Honors show.
GALLERY: Click the image to view a gallery of photos from Cook's career.
Cook, 83, a native of Atlanta, Ga., made her mark in 1956 in Leonard Bernstein’s musical “Candide” with the song, “Glitter and Be Gay.” She won her first Tony Award for playing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man,” singing the classic “Till There Was You.”
Her longevity, she said, “is just plain old luck and, normally I have tremendous energy.” She has an album coming out later this year. “It was recorded live with songs like ‘You Make Me Feel So Young, ‘I Got Rhythm.’ And I am writing a memoir, supposed to be writing. It’s hard to do.”
Cook cried when told of her selection, she said. “This is a validation of my work and career. ”
She’s proud, she said,of adding her name to those of former honorees, such as her close friend composer Stephen Sondheim. “This is so thrilling. James Cagney and Barbara Cook. Barbara Cook and Fred Astaire. Holy Hannah!”
GALLERY: Click the image to view a gallery of photos from Rollins's career.
Rollins, who celebrates his 81st birthday Wednesday, has contributed so much to jazz that people for years have bypassed the adjective of “giant” and simply called him “a colossus.”
Rollins, a native of Harlem, originally played alto sax and then switched to tenor sax. He emerged as a coveted sideman in the 1950s, playing with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Max Roach among others. In 1953, his recording “Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet” became a classic. Other landmark albums followed, including “A Night at the Village Vanguard” in 1957 and ”Freedom Suite” in 1958. In 2000, he won his first Grammy, for “This Is What I Do,” and his second Grammy in 2004 for “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert.”
In a phone interview Rollins said the award honors more than just him. “I think that jazz has been sort of underrepresented in our culture. It is so gratifying to know that now it is beginning to be recognized as the great world force it is. I have fans in Mongolia, as well as Madison, Wisc.,’’ said Rollins. “It is not about me but the idiom, and I am just one of the last guys standing.”
Earlier this year, Rollins was awarded the National Medal of Arts. “I still practice everyday. I am working hard to become more perfect in my art and presentation,” he said.
GALLERY: Click the image to view a gallery of photos from Diamond's career.
With an ability to move from pop to rock to folk, Diamond has sold 128 million records. He’s written songs for others, such as the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” and for himself, with “Sweet Caroline” “Solitary Man” “Love on the Rocks” and “America.”
The writing hasn’t always been easy, he said. “For a while it became harder. I went through a period of writing deeply personal songs. It was very hard to do. I was not only trying to write a song but at the same time trying to understand myself. Every song has a little bit of my story in it. It has become easier,” Diamond said.
Diamond, who recently did a series of sold-out concerts in Britain, says the thrill of performing live — and he counts 2,000 concerts performed — hasn’t diminished. “We work hard to make sure it is good,” he said.
Many of his songs have been adopted by sports teams. “I love when anybody uses a song. There are hundreds of sports teams — professional, amateur, scholastic —that use them as good luck omens. “Sweet Caroline” has been one of my good-luck omens for years.”
GALLERY: Click the image to view a gallery of photos from Streep's career.
Although every film buff knows this, it bears repeating. Streep, 62, has been nominated for more awards than any other actor in the history of the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. Out of 16 Oscar nominations, she won for “Sophie’s Choice” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Out of 25 Golden Globes nominations, she has won seven. Her work also includes two Emmys, most recently for “Angels in America.”
A native of Summit, N.J., Streep started her dramatic climb at Vassar College and the Yale School of Drama. On stage, she has done Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Brecht/Weill. Naturally, Streep was making a movie this week and was unavailable for comment on the Honors.
But she sent a message: “I am deeply honored by this news, and wish my mother and father were alive to hear it. All that education, allowance, tuition, voice lessons, summer jobs, scholarship application deadlines and loving care and discipline — all that they gave me, bore fruit in a way they never dreamed. I am so grateful!”
GALLERY: Click the image to view a gallery of photos from Ma's career.
Ma, 55, born in Paris and raised in New York, is one of the most lauded musicians of his generation. He has won 16 Grammy Awards, including a Latin Grammy, and this year received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. All 75 of his albums have been on the Billboard best-seller lists.
Although he was “overwhelmed” at being named for the Honors, Ma said the gathering of people at those occasions is much more rewarding. “I really appreciate these gatherings. The people getting these awards are incredibly giving people. That impresses me. In spite of incredible accomplishments, they are aware they are not the center of the universe,’’ he said.
Ma is noted for his varied collaborations and founded the Silk Road Project in 1998 to showcase the music that has enriched the old trade route from the Mediterranean to the Pacific.
His newest project is “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” with bluegrass greats Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan. These experiences add to his lifelong learning, said Ma. “I’m very very lucky. At every stage in life I came across unbelievable people,” he said.
CBS will broadcast the full program of salutes to the Honorees in late December.
A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the Leonard Bernstein musical “Candide.”