Santana feted at Kennedy Center Honors

Former Tijuana guitarist honored, along with actress Shirley MacLaine and fellow music greats Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel & Marrtina Arroyo

President Barack Obama, right, congratulates 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, Carlos Santana, during a reception honoring the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipients, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013.
President Barack Obama, right, congratulates 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipient, Carlos Santana, during a reception honoring the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors recipients, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013.

— It was a doubly historic night for Carlos Santana, the former Tijuana guitarist who was one of five iconic artists honored Sunday at the 36th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. He was feted alongside this year’s other four honorees: Rock Hall of Famer Billy Joel; actress/dancer Shirley MacLaine; opera star Martina Arroyo; and jazz great Herbie Hancock.

Santana became both the first Mexican immigrant and the first Latin-rock musician to be accorded this prestigious award, which has previously been given to such icons as Barbra Streisand, B.B. King and Yo-Yo Ma. (La Jolla native Gregory Peck, who died in 2003, remains the only San Diegan to be selected (in 1991) as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.)

He is also only the third Hispanic artist to be selected in the history of the Kennedy Center Honors, which was filmed by CBS-TV and will air in San Diego Dec. 29 on KFMB Channel 8. The annual event has been described as both Washington's answer to the Academy Awards and the American pop-culture equivalent of being knighted.

Yet, while he was humbled and proud to be singled out, Santana made it clear during a red-carpet interview in the foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that his goal is to transcend borders, race and nationalities through his music.

“To a lot of people, it means a lot (that I am Latino),” he said of his selection for this most prestigious honor. “To me, it means that I am a beam of light, and if you want it to be Latino, black, yellow, that is your business. I am a beam of light and I want to remind everyone, so are you.

“Like Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Allah, we are all a beam of light – and then you can be anything.”

Asked to recall what he saw when, as a teenager, he stood in front of Apex Music in downtown San Diego, admiring the Gibson and Fender guitars in the store window, he beamed broadly. “I could totally see my future,” he said.

Santana, 66, has been a Bay Area resident since the early 1960s and is a longtime U.S. citizen. On Sunday, he was seated directly to the right of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the presidential box in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center, which was filled with a capacity audience of 2,300.

Seated on the guitarist’s other side were the evening’s other honorees. The audience included everyone from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleague, Sonia Sotomayor (who was on hand to salute Arroyo, a close friend) to Steve Winwood and Sheila E. The latter two were part of the night’s rousing, multi-song tribute to Santana, along with Juanes, guitarist Tom Morello, Mana singer Fher Olvera and 2012 Kennedy Center Honors recipient Buddy Guy.

Speaking on the red carpet before the event began, Santana said he was especially pleased to be saluted alongside Hancock, a longtime friend and collaborator. "We don't let anyone define and encapsulate us (in) something limited with a short ceiling," he said. "We are musicians and we play live. Woman is the melody, man is the rhythm and the band don't matter! So we articulate the language for sound vibrations and our intention is..."

At that point, Belafonte sneaked up behind Santana on the red carpet and playfully said: "Lies, lies, lies! All lies!"

Both men broke into laughter, as did Santana's wife, jazz drum dynamo Cindy Blackman. Santana then resumed speaking.

"Our intention is to remain individuals and (discover and express) the forgotten song," he continued. "Everyone has a forgotten song inside them and that song is about playing the luminescence in your life. Don't give it to somebody else. Beauty, elegance, excellence, that's what you should be dedicated to. Say: 'I am what I am. I am the light'."

All five of the night’s honorees were also guests Sunday at an invitation-only White House reception, which was filmed in the East Room and shown to the Kennedy Center audience. (Here's the full text of the president's remarks.)

“This is truly one of our favorite nights of the year, and not just because of everyone who visits the White House; this group also usually wins (the) ‘best dressed’ award,” President Obama said to laughter. “All of you look spectacular. I am a little disappointed that Carlos Santana wore one of his more conservative shirts this evening. Back in the day, you could see those things from space!

“… the fact is that the diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven’t just proven themselves to be the best of the best. Despite all their success, all their fame, they’ve remained true to themselves – and inspired the rest of us to do the same.”

Before several musical performances in his honor, Santana was saluted in words by Harry Belafonte, whose opening line drew immediate laughter: “Well, I tell you, folks, no two ways about it, we’ve got to do something about Mexican immigration. Every day, you have people like Carlos Santana coming into this country and taking the jobs that should be going to real Americans.”

After some additional quips, Belafonte grew more serious, saying: “Carlos has become a citizen of the world. You have transcended race. You continue to inform the immigrant experience on your way to the American Dream. Even without music, you are an essential humanitarian. But, with music, you are kind of like a god. Your music tells us to move, it tells us all to love. And what a privilege it is to give you some of that love back.”

An array of musicians were on hand to salute Santana.

Fehr Olvera, the lead singer in the top Mexican rock band Mana, performed "Corazon Espinado" in Spanish, while Juanes and Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello – who is prominently featured on the upcoming new Bruce Springsteen album – teamed up for a tart version of "Black Magic Woman." They were then joined by Olvera for "Oye Como Va," the Tito Puente cha-cha chestnut that Santana transformed into a rock and pop radio hit more than 40 years ago.

Buddy Guy, himself a 2012 Kennedy Center honoree, spoke of Santana's love of the blues. He then delivered a blistering version of the Willie Dixon-penned Muddy Waters blues classic, "Hoochie Coochie Man."

Even better was the high-octane reading of Everybody's Everything" delivered by Steve Winwood and Sheila E, who earned a standing ovation.

Hancock was honored by three different bands, one of which featured unlikely crowd favorite Snoop Dogg. Even more unlikely, Hancock’s praises were sung to the audience by conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly.

“I know, I’m surprised, too,” O’Reilly said, acknowledging that he is not the most obvious fan of jazz or of Hancock, whom he called “a remarkable American… His music takes me to another place, naturally."

Commenting on Hancock’s serenity, O’Reilly said: “Look at him up there (in the presidential box), with the president and all these brilliant artists. And he’s the only one up there who isn’t nervous about what I’m going to say.”

The first band to salute Hancock was a jazz lover's dream. It featured saxophonist Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Chick Corea (who in the late 1960s replaced Hancock in the Miles Davis Quintet, which also featured Shorter) and two other Davis band alums, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette (who played up a storm despite his bass drum pedal beater flying off at the start of their version of the pre-Hancock Davis gem, "Walkin' ").

Next up was a second quintet, this one led by saxophonist Joshua Redman, which played Hancock's snappy 1960s' hit "Watermelon Man." Then came a third band, featuring former Davis bassist Marcus Miller, West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and Beastie Boys DJ Mix-Master Mike for Hancock's hip-hop-flavored "Rockit."

This was followed by the surprise performance by Snoop Dogg, who acquitted himself very well with his jazz-infused rap on "Cantaloupe Island" (with a snippet of his own "Gin and Juice") and sent a jolt of electricity into the audience. At the conclusion, all three Hanock tribute bands performed in unison, marking what may well be the first and last time Snoop Dogg and Wayne Shorter will ever be seen on the same stage at the same time.

It is unclear whether he and O'Reilly later engaged in a tête-à-tête at the post-show dinner at the Kennedy Center.

For veteran actress, singer and dancer MacLaine, 79, being saluted in the nation's capital carried on a family tradition – her younger brother, Warren Beatty, was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2004. Her praises were sung at length by fellow actress Kathy Bates and she was saluted in song by Sutton Foster and Anna Kendrick, who sang a winning version of "It’s Not Where You Start” from the Broadway show “Seesaw”.

The honor was something of a swan song for acclaimed soprano Arroyo, 76, who last performed an opera role in 1991. She remains active, however, as a teacher and several of her proteges were present to pay musical tribute to her.

That tribute coincided with the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth. It was Arroyo's performance of his most famed work, “Aida,” which made her a star when she sang it early in her career at New York's Metropolitan Opera (as a last minute substitute for an ailing soprano). Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sang “O Patria Mia,” following tenor Joseph Calleja's rendition of “Celeste Aida.” One can only hope the cameras filming the TV special for CBS caught these two opera greats happily complying, along with the rest of the audience when Snoop Dogg later asked that everyone present wave their hands in the air and shout "Ho!" and "Hancock!"

For Joel, who has not recorded a new pop album in 20 years, the Kennedy Center recognition seemed inadvertently timed to coincide with his recent return to the concert stage. The 64-year-old singer-songwriter will perform May 17 at the Hollywood Bowl (tickets go on sale Friday). The next Southern California performance by Hancock, 73, is a Feb. 14 Los Angeles concert at Disney Hall.

The musical tribute to Joel, who was first honored in a glowing speech by Tony Bennett, was a mixed bag. Where Rufus Wainwright delivered a stunning version of "New York State of Mind," a very pitch-challenged Garth Brooks sounded almost karaoke-like in his medley of "Only the Good Die Young," "Allentown" and "Good Night Saigon," for which a group of Vietnam veterans came on stage to help out on the song's brothers-in-arms/all-for-one chorus. Better, but not as good as Wainwright, was Don Henley's take on "She's Got a Way" and Panic At The Disco front man Brendon Urie's version of "Big Shot."

The glowing accolades and warm feelings that fueled Sunday's ceremony, which was hosted by actress Glenn Close, stood in sharp contrast to the weather outside. After welcoming the first snowfall of the season, which measured more than an inch in places, an icy rain began to fall late Sunday afternoon.

But the numbing cold couldn't keep spirits in the Kennedy Center from rising – nor could they keep at least one honoree from getting teary-eyed.

"I'm verklempt," Joel said backstage.