The 2011 Kennedy Center Honors, announced Wednesday, salute four architects of music: the improvisational saxophone of Sonny Rollins, the Broadway warmth of soprano Barbara Cook, the tender cello of Yo-Yo Ma and the pulsing anthems of Neil Diamond.
The center has also selected Meryl Streep, who has sung in a few movies and on Broadway but is much better known for her flawless interpretations of diverse characters over the past 35 years.
When the letters from the Kennedy Center arrive, even artists who have been in the spotlight for decades are often taken aback.
“I couldn’t believe it, but it actually said I was chosen as one of the Kennedy Center honorees,” Diamond said in a phone interview. “And it told me to keep my mouth shut.” Now Diamond, 70, a native of Brooklyn, 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 a televised evening of all-star salutes to the honorees at the Kennedy Center, introduced by Caroline Kennedy. In a musical coincidence, Diamond’s anthem “Sweet Caroline” was inspired by the president’s daughter.
“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., a co-producer of the televised honors.
Cook, 83, a native of Atlanta, made her Broadway debut in 1951 in the musical “Flahooley.” She attracted much attention in 1956 in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” and she won a Tony Award for playing Marian the Librarian in 1957’s “The Music Man.”
Her longevity, she said, “is just plain old luck and, normally, I have tremendous energy.” She has another album coming out 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 said she cried when told of her selection. “This is a validation of my work and career.”
She’s proud, she said, of her name being added 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!”
Rollins, who will celebrate his 81st birthday Wednesday, originally played alto sax, then switched to tenor sax. He emerged as a coveted sideman in the 1950s, playing with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown and Max Roach, among others. His 1953 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. He won his first Grammy for “This Is What I Do” in 2000 and his second in 2004 for “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert.”
In a telephone 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, Wisconsin,’’ Rollins said. “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 every day. I am working hard to become more perfect in my art and presentation,” he said.
With an ability to move from pop to rock to folk, Diamond has sold 128 million records. He has written songs for others, such as the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” and for himself, including “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,” said Diamond, who Wednesday tweeted news of his wedding engagement to his fans.
Diamond, who recently did a series of sold-out concerts in Britain, says the thrill of performing live — and he counts 2,000 concerts — 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.”
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 as Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice” and Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer.” Out of 25 Golden Globe nominations, she has won seven. Her other awards include two Emmys, most recently for the HBO adaptation of the play “Angels in America.”
A native of Summit, N.J., Streep started her dramatic climb at Vassar College and the Yale School of Drama. Onstage, she has done Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill. Naturally, Streep was making a movie this week and was unavailable to talk about the Kennedy Center Honors.
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!”
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 bestseller lists.
He said that he was “overwhelmed” at being an honoree but that the gathering of people at the annual event 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. He 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. Such experiences add to his lifelong learning, Ma said. “I’m very very lucky. At every stage in life, I came across unbelievable people.”
CBS will broadcast the full program of salutes to the honorees in late December.