President Obama Hosts Kennedy Center Honorees, Quips on Santana's 'Altered State of Mind'

(Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Several of of the country's biggest figures from film and music were recognized at the White House today for their mark on the performing arts.

Actress Shirley MacLaine, along with musicians Carlos Santana, Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock and opera soprano Martina Arroyo were each to receive achievement awards at the annual Kennedy Center Honors gala tonight. But first President Obama welcomed them to the nation's capital with a smaller reception in the executive residence.

"President Kennedy once said of such a great genius that 'the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.' Now that's easy to say when, as they do for these artists, the chips usually fall in your favor, whether at Woodstock or the Oscars or elite venues all over the world. But the fact is the diverse group of extraordinary individuals we honor today haven't just proven themselves to be the best of the best," the president. "Despite all their success, over fame they've remained true to themselves and inspired the rest of us to do the same."

The president recounted each recipient's contributions to his audience: Arroyo's humble beginnings in Harlem redefined "what magnificent artists look like and where they come from;" jazz artist Hancock's world tours as a UNESCO ambassador; Santana giving voice to a rising Latino community; Joel's depictions of working class American struggles; MacLaine's wide performance range from Alfred Hitchcock to "Downton Abbey."

"Each of our brilliant honorees has given us something unique and enriched us beyond measure, as individuals and as a nation," he said. "Together they bring us closer to President Kennedy's vision of the arts as a great humanizing and truth telling experience. Their triumphs have lifted our spirits and lifted our nation, and left us a better, richer place."

Obama's humor was also on display tonight, commenting on 73-year-old Hancock's "spooky Dorian Gray doesn't get older thing," and Santana's lifestyle.

"Before Carlos Santana took the stage at Woodstock few people outside his hometown of San Francisco knew who he was, and the feeling was mutual: Carlos was in such a, shall we say, 'altered state of mind,' that he remembers almost nothing about the performance," he joked.

The Kennedy Center Honors has no categories or competition, selecting recipients solely for lifetime contributions to entertainment culture.

Winter hosts the bulk of black tie events for the nation's capital and tonight's gala at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will be a star-studded affair, bringing the elite of the music, dance, theater, and motion picture spheres together with Washington high society.

The president and first lady Michelle Obama will also attend and sit with the recipients, as is tradition. The White House has a strong hand in steering of the public-private partnership; sitting presidents each appoint members to the organization's Board of Trustees while first ladies and their living predecessors are seated as the body's chairs. However, this year the body's selection process was expanded to include recommendations from the public and an advisory committee composed of artists and past Honorees.

Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, several members of Congress, and members of the president's cabinet also sit on the board and were expected to attend.

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