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Top Ten Kennedy Center Musical Moments

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Alan Bryson By

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It's a good bet that most of us have heard people say they don't like jazz, or even worse, drop the H-bomb: "I hate jazz." If you choose to engage them, the key is to tread lightly and tailor an approach that considers their tastes and sensibilities. This So You Don't Like Jazz column explores ways to do just that.

One particularly effective approach is to ignore labels and concentrate on the joy of music. To that end, this time, we'll focus on performances from the annual Kennedy Center Honors galas. This list is primarily drawn from the past ten years due to the availability of higher- quality video. While there is an emphasis on popular music, the list also features tributes to some jazz icons.

President Dwight Eisenhower is perhaps best remembered for eight years of peace and prosperity, the interstate highway system, and his warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. Another one of his achievements was the creation of the National Cultural Center, which he signed into law in 1958. The idea was then championed by his successor, President John Kennedy, and renamed in his honor after his tragic death.

The Center's declared mission is to present "world-class art by the artists that define our culture today." Of course, there is a commingling of political and entertainment elites and a sense that politicians are granting themselves the ultimate backstage pass. Nonetheless, this celebration of the arts also serves the public, and the artists receive the honor and recognition they deserve.

Inductees are selected by a Special Honors Advisory Committee. The weekend-long event includes an invitation-only luncheon, a State Department dinner, and (political climate permitting) a White House reception culminating in the gala performances and supper. During the event, honorees are seated alongside dignitaries. The gala performances are recorded, edited and broadcast at a later date. One of the real joys of the gala performances is the genuine emotion displayed by honorees watching their peers performing their music.

Some of the first musical honorees from the '70s and '80s included: Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Isaac Stern, and Ray Charles. Honorees from the '90s included: Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder.

In the new millennium, the Kennedy Center honored Chuck Berry, Quincy Jones, Luciano Pavarotti, Paul Simon, James Brown, Loretta Lynn, Itzhak Perlman, Elton John, Tony Bennett, Tina Turner, Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Brian Wilson, George Jones, Barbra Streisand, The Who, Dave Brubeck, Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard, Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, Yo-Yo Ma, Sonny Rollins, Buddy Guy, Led Zeppelin, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Carlos Santana, Al Green, Sting, Carole King, The Eagles, Mavis Staples, James Taylor, Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, Cher, Reba McEntire, Wayne Shorter, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

This list is not a ranking—although it favors honorees who seemed genuinely touched by the tributes.

1. Carlos Santana

This performance is from December 2013. Juanes, a major Columbian singer, songwriter and guitarist, sings "Black Magic Woman" with Tom Morello on lead guitar. They are then joined by Fher Olivera, the lead singer of Maná (the most successful Latin American Band in history) for "Oye Como Va." To the delight of blues lover Santana, Buddy Guy then performs "Hoochie Coochie Man." Last but definitely not least, Steve Winwood on vocals and Hammond B3 organ is joined by percussionist Sheila E. and guitarist Orianthi for a killer version of "Everybody's Everything" that brings the house down.



2. Led Zeppelin

This CBS clip from December 2012 features Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, joined by Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham, performing "Stairway to Heaven." Jimmy Page's reactions are priceless.



3. Carole King

Aretha Franklin, at the age of 73, sang and accompanied herself on piano at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Carole King. She performed her signature hit "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" which was written by Carole King and her then husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin. Carole King is a joy to behold, reacting like a little kid who has just been given a pony.



4. Dave Brubeck

It's simply wonderful to see the joy that this 2009 tribute brought to the then 89-year-old Dave Brubeck. He's clearly thrilled and a bit awestruck by the literal jazz army paying tribute to him. The U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors are joined by Brubeck's four musician sons—Darius, Dan, Chris and Matt—as well as heavyweights such as Jon Faddis, Bill Stewart, Miguel Zenon, Christian McBride, and Bill Charlap.



5. Stevie Wonder

This performance is pure magic as Diane Schuur, accompanied by Herbie Hancock, transforms an overplayed earworm into a work of art as Stevie Wonder listens with tears streaming down his cheeks. The entire tribute to Wonder, the final honoree of the 20th century, is worth watching.



6. Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie was 73 when he was celebrated at the 13th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1990. Comedian/actor Bill Cosby introduced Gillespie and narrated a biographical short film of Gillespie's life that highlighted some of his contributions to jazz. 21 years later, in 2011, Cosby would also introduce Sonny Rollins at the Kennedy Center Honors. The performance features a big band performing Gillespie's composition "Night in Tunisia."



7. Earth, Wind & Fire

In 2019, the Kennedy Center honored Earth, Wind & Fire, noting that their "hooks and grooves are the foundation of a seminal style that continues to shape our musical landscape." Sadly, Maurice White died in 2016, so he wasn't there in person to experience Tony Award-winning performer Cynthia Erivo singing "Fantasy" and "Reasons."



8. Paul McCartney

Steven Tyler salutes The Beatles' Abbey Road (Apple Records, 1969) during the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors. The arena rocker demonstrates that, even at 62, he is indeed a rock star: energized and in charge.



9. Yo-Yo Ma

In 2011, a diverse and gifted assemblage of musicians paid tribute to the master, Yo-Yo Ma. What's not to love about this guy? He is the embodiment of moving beyond labels and genres and focusing on the joy of music.



10. Herbie Hancock

We close with a real treat for jazz fans: an all-star tribute to Herbie Hancock featuring: Terence Blanchard, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Aaron Parks, James Genus and several others.



Please feel free to share your favorites performances in the comments, and it would be great if any of you jazz aficionados would identify some of the supporting musicians in the background.

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