The honorees, announced Thursday by the Kennedy Center, also include pop singer-songwriter Billy Joel, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock and actress Shirley MacLaine.
Before this year, only two of the 186 honorees since 1978 were of Hispanic origin: Plácido Domingo in 2000 and Chita Rivera in 2002. Controversy erupted after a fiery exchange between Kennedy Center President Michael M. 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 to the public on its Web site. 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 M. 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 National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts reacted positively to this year’s announcement, in particular praising the selections of Santana and Arroyo.
“The Kennedy Center Honors should be credited today with presenting a more modern artistic landscape that inclusively represents the artistic achievements of this great nation,” Sanchez said in a statement.
The National Council of La Raza — a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group — added its praise. “We commend the Kennedy Center’s leadership for making the necessary changes in the selection process that resulted in the broad diversity of this year’s class of honorees,” said president and chief executive Janet Murguía.
The Kennedy Center would not detail how the selection of artists differed this year or whether the revised process contributed 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, 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 1960s and ’70s, she performed in the United States and across Europe’s great houses including the 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 gave rise to 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.”
Santana said the honors carry extra meaning for him because many of his idols, including Buddy Guy, a 2012 honoree, preceded him. He also noted that he hopes the honors will have resonance with the Latino community.
“It means we are part of the fabric of the tapestry of the United States of America,” he said. “We are part of the mainstream, especially now. It seems that day by day, we are becoming not minorities but part and parcel of what America is.”
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 created 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 that 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.” Born in the Bronx, Joel, 64, is one of the best-selling pop artists of all time, garnering 33 Top 40 hits and selling 150 million records worldwide.
Joel was unavailable for comment because of events related to the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, but in a statement he said, “[T]o have my name added to the illustrious roster of outstanding musicians that have already been so honored is very meaningful to me.
This year’s list of honorees includes an Arlington 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.”
Reached via phone from her home in Santa Fe, N.M., MacLaine called the honors, “a homecoming,” and says she is looking forward to “being in the White House again and seeing how this crowd really acts. I’ve played my show at the Kennedy Center a few times, so it will be nice being in the audience for a change.”
Although diversity of race and heritage is historic among this list, there’s less diversity among artistic disciplines. MacLaine’s selection marks the only theater or film actor among a slate of musicians. Dance was ignored in this year’s crop — although MacLaine spent her childhood and early career in the ballet.
Stevens compared the mix of disciplines with the 2011 honorees, when Meryl Streep was the only actor among a group of musicians.
“The criteria says that there will be diversity among disciplines, but each one cannot be recognized every year,” he said.
Although primarily a celebration, bestowing the honors is also a television production, one that’s designed to bring in high ratings for a major network. In previous years, some critics have remarked that theater translates poorly in the honors broadcast on CBS. While musical performances of any kind — rock, pop and opera — tend to impress both the live audience in the Kennedy Center Opera Hall and TV viewers, acting tributes onstage are more difficult to capture.
The honors ceremony also is the Kennedy Center’s largest fundraiser of the year, meaning Stevens and the selection committee must strike a delicate balance between choosing marquee names and deserving artists who will satisfy ratings, patrons, advocacy groups and the criterion of excellence.
Stevens denies that these factors affect the selection or that musical tributes are easier to stage for the broadcast.
“We will be honoring [theater and dance] in the future, as we have in the past,” he said.
Kennedy Center Honors
will take place Dec. 8 and will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 29 at 9 p.m.