The performing arts have always been an integral part of my life, and I can’t imagine it without them. In my early growing up years, I followed in my sisters’ footsteps and took piano lessons. Later I played an instrument. As a string bass player, I performed with string and concert orchestras, concert band, jazz band and as a soloist throughout junior and high school.
Some of my music teachers urged me to pursue a career as a professional musician, and although I chose a different course, I continued to perform when opportunities arose with groups of friends, pickup groups at music festivals and as a volunteer with community and university orchestras.
I considered myself very lucky to have had a strong arts education while growing up in Nebraska, and it is very gratifying to have spent the last 30-plus years in a Deep South city that is home to two universities with strong arts programs. Many performers of national and world renown have appeared here. Art galleries and spaces for live performance are plentiful.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising to know one of my favorite television specials every year is the Kennedy Center Awards Ceremony. The ceremony this year in particular had a powerful effect on me. One reason, of course, is that 2013 is the 50th anniversary year of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the Kennedy Center honors his commitment to promotion of American performing arts.
The other reason it affected me powerfully was that to me the honorees in this particular ceremony personified what the American performing arts are.
The award winners this year were Carlos Santanya, Martina Arroyo, Herbie Hancock, Shirley McLaine and Billy Joel. That’s quite a diverse group. Yet, there is a strong connection among them that accounted for the powerful personal impact the tributes to them had on me.
Those who led the accolades all spoke to it: these artists reflect the stories of the people of this country – they represent and perform from the heart of who we are, the speakers said.
Santanya’s life work has moved from being a young fiddler in his father’s Latin bands through his own bands showcasing sophisticated Latin rhythms and various forms of rock and jazz, all native to the Americas. He weaves it all into his own consuming version of popular music.
Santanya went through a period of not knowing where he was headed, but he paused and looked to the youth of his adopted country to tell him where to go next.
Just as Santanya has drawn from his people, Arroyo, renowned performer of Verdi operas, speaks from the heart of her ethnic background in New York City. She conveys the message that achieving the seemingly impossible is indeed possible, and now she spends her time and effort helping promising young students and emerging artists. A number of them gathered on the stage to pay tribute to her.
Shirley McLaine and Herbie Hancock – again once talented kids who worked to become major performers of their time. Hancock is another musician who has drawn on all the elements of his time and place as has McLaine. When she went beyond the winsome ingénue parts of her first days on the musical stage, she persisted, did not allow herself to be diminished, to fade away. The parts she garnered in the past and now reflect the messages of the time, what people are focusing on.
Hancock is the master of absorbing and reflecting the jazz connected genres of his professional life. From early jazz to modern versions and on to hip hop and rap, Hancock’s music speaks it all and endures through the changes.
It was the final award recipient, Billy Joel, however, who really pulled it together for me. I saw him in the benefit show after Hurricane Sandy, and at that time, it occurred to me that he is a dominant musical spokesman of our time. His compositions and lyrics tell it like it was and is, but in a broad way that draws in everyone.
That was why, I think, that everyone sang along during the tribute to him: the President and First Lady, Martina Arroyo and Shirley McLaine (of course, Hancock and Santanya) and many in the audience, including Sonia Stotomayor, who gave the tribute to Arroyo.
During the other tributes, the award winners responded with broad smiles, cheers and claps. For the musicians they moved to the beat. For Biily Joel, however, they all sang. They knew the words – as did we. He tells our stories, and he sings our hearts’ songs.