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.
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 and ’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.”
Santana said the honor carries extra meaning for him because many of his idols, including Buddy Guy, a 2012 honoree, received the honor before him. He also noted that he hopes the honor 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.”
The Honors 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 criteria of excellence.
The Kennedy Center honors will take place on Dec. 8 and will be broadcast on Ch. 7 on Dec. 29 at 6 p.m. Pacific time.