On Thursday, The Kennedy Center announced its honorees for 2015, giving America its annual gift of cultural whiplash (the above photo is an excellent example). Representing classical music will be Seiji Ozawa, longtime music director of the Boston Symphony, along with Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson, George Lucas, Carole King and the Eagles (not a misprint).
Every December, the honorees and their guests converge on Washington for parties and the taping of the TV show, shown on CBS right before New Year’s Eve. This was always my favorite time of year when I was in the Marine Band – we would play at both the State Department and the White House celebrations, and the people watching was unbelievable. I had wonderful conversations with the great singer Joe Williams and guitarist Kenny Burrell one year, and saw many other famous artists I admired, including Carol Burnett, who did her Tarzan yell in the White House foyer.
Walter Cronkite hosted the program for many years, and was a fixture at the parties. One night at the State Department, he came over and asked our string quartet: “Do you have The Stars and Stripes?” Of course we did, and launched into it with Cronkite “conducting,” which was, well, the way it was.
At another State Department party, Clint Eastwood came around the corner with Don Rickles (it says something about our government that someone let the king of insult comedy wander around the home of American diplomacy). Rickles spotted the quartet and shouted, “Hey Clint, look – it’s the band from Titanic!”
My all-time favorite Marine Band memory came courtesy of Jack Nicholson (shown here with his fellow 2001 honorees Van Cliburn, Julie Andrews, Luciano Pavarotti and Quincy Jones) at the White House.
The party had been going for some time – in fact, it was over, and the medal ceremony was supposed to be happening. Everyone was in the East Room waiting, while only the honorees, some VIPs and nervous White House staff members remained in the hallway with us as we kept on playing. We were all waiting for Jack, for what must have been at least a half hour. I remember seeing President George W. Bush pointing at his wristwatch as he stood on the red carpet – he didn’t seem pleased.
Finally, Nicholson sauntered in, walked right past the President without saying hello, went to the bar to get a drink and walked back to join the group. As he passed the orchestra, he looked over and said “It’s all right, you don’t have to play Hail To The Chief.” Everyone broke up, with one exception, I imagine.
The Kennedy Center Honors is a very American affair, with its sometimes bewildering mix of genres and tastes. The broadcast is often fun to watch, and even inspiring. I remember seeing Yo-Yo Ma play the last movement of the Crumb Solo Sonata in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich’s award in 1992. On the other hand, when Yo-Yo got the award himself a few years ago, Elmo from Sesame Street was one of the main speakers – can’t win ’em all. Still, at least there’s one night left on commercial TV devoted to American art, and I’ll watch this year, for the people watching if nothing else. And who knows, maybe there will be something inspiring, too.
Till next time,