Since 1978, the Kennedy Center Honors has annually inducted a diverse clutch of artists into a modern American pantheon. But never before have the laureates been more heavily weighted toward performing musicians. Four of the traditional five slots for this year’s celebration — the 34th — are to be filled either by singers or instrumentalists: Broadway ingenue-cum-cabaret legend Barbara Cook, pop balladeer and songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist and musical ambassador Yo-Yo Ma and jazz saxophonist and composer Sonny Rollins. The odd-man-out, so to speak, is actress Meryl Streep.
Broadway and cabaret legend
Singer, pianist and musical preservationist Michael Feinstein calls Cook “one of the most esteemed interpreters of American popular song.” Noting her durability and adaptability in a profession where staying power is an art in itself, he adds, “Barbara helped change the way we listen to and come to respect American popular song. She has shown how significant and contemporary these songs are, extending their life by purveying them in their best possible form.”
Diamond has served as a beacon to fellow performers. “I think every aspiring artist basically wants to have the kind of career, the kind of longevity, that Neil Diamond has,” says Michael Bolton, who counts himself among that number. “Neil has been creating songs that deliver for 50 years. He is a guy who’s paid his dues, and he brings that with him on stage. He’s a perfect representative of someone who really understood what’s most important in music and knew what his single most powerful passion was and went for it. And in addition to his staggering career as an artist and entertainer, his body of work will be celebrated long after he’s gone.”
Pianist Leon Fleisher, a KenCen Honors laureate from 2007, says he’s “filled with love and admiration” for Ma, the genre-jumping cellist who is perhaps the world’s most recognized classical performer. “Yo-Yo is always searching, and he has extraordinary musical integrity,” Fleisher says. “With virtuosos, it’s easy to get caught up in that sportive sense of being able to scamper around the instrument, but Yo-Yo is able to resist that or put it in the service of an idea that is closest to the sense of what he feels the music is about. Plus, his interests are so Catholic, it’s really quite astounding. He’s also a sweetheart of a person; he’s quite irresistible.”
Rollins, a jazz pillar, has been especially lauded for his improvisatory abilities, but his genius as a composer and performer extends beyond that. “It’s his ability to understand the relationship of one style of jazz to all of the styles that preceded it,” says fellow saxophonist Branford Marsalis. “Whereas most musicians were considering themselves forward-thinking geniuses, setting fire to what came before, Sonny’s been an amalgam of the past and the present.”
And then there’s Streep, who is best known for something besides music — though she can sing, as anyone who saw “Mamma Mia!” knows. That picture was directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who also guided the actress in “The Iron Lady,” the upcoming Margaret Thatcher biopic. “You could think that at this stage, Meryl would able to say, been there, done that, got the T-shirt,” Lloyd says of Streep. “But instead she goes at her work as if this were her first job — with that innocence and doubt and lack of complacency that is jaw-dropping. There’s something very simple and direct about her approach, because there is a purpose to every performance and an audience in mind.”