WASHINGTON — When Herbie Hancock learned he was one of the five artists to be honored this year by t
he John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the surprise, he said, brought him to the verge of tears. “And that doesn’t happen to me very often.” “To think that they would put me on the list with people I have loved and respected for so many years, it’s shocking,” said Mr. Hancock, a 73-year-old master jazz pianist who has won 14 Grammys and an Oscar. “It was like a dream, hard to believe and humbling.”
The musicians Billy Joel and Carlos Santana, the actress Shirley MacLaine and the soprano Martina Arroyo will also receive the 36th honors medal in December, the Kennedy Center announced Thursday.
The annual award is presented for lifetime contributions to American culture in dance, music, theater, opera, Film or television. David M. Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center chairman, said the honorees “have spent their lives elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and the world.”
This class of recipients is the first since the Kennedy Center revamped its selection process this year, in response to criticism that the process lacked transparency and had yielded only two Latino winners.
The medals will be presented at a dinner at the State Department on Dec. 7, followed the next day by a reception at the White House and tribute performances at the Kennedy Center. The performances will be taped and broadcast on Dec. 29 on CBS.
“It’s better than Fourth of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s,” said Mr. Santana, 66, who is receiving the award 50 years after he arrived in San Francisco from Tijuana, Mexico.
He made a name for himself in the Bay Area at a time, he said, when it was “ground zero for the consciousness revolution.” But he shot to fame after his band performed at the Woodstock concert in 1969. Since then, he has racked up 10 Grammys and sold more than 100 million records with music that blends Afro-Cuban styles with blues, jazz and rock.
Ms. MacLaine, 79, has won an Oscar, several Golden Globes and a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute for a career full of notable performances in films like “The Apartment” in 1960 and “Terms of Endearment” in 1983. But the Kennedy Center medal, she said, is special recognition.
“The others are for a part you did or for how you interpreted a character, but this is about how you’ve interpreted yourself,” she said.
Mr. Joel’s lyricism and piano skills earned him the nickname “Piano Man” — the title of his signature song — as he churned out decades of hits like the singles “Allentown” and “Only the Good Die Young.” Mr. Joel, 64, said in a statement that he was honored to be among an “illustrious roster of outstanding musicians.”
Mr. Hancock pushed jazz into the electronic age and fused it with funk, hip-hop and pop.
Ms. Arroyo, 76, pursued opera against her mother’s urgings to find a more practical skill. She became a star in 1965 after she replaced Birgit Nilsson in a production of “Aida” and has performed around the world.
Before Ms. Arroyo and Mr. Santana, the actress Chita Rivera and the opera star Plácido Domingo were the only Latinos among 185 artists who had received the award since it was created in 1978 with a single criterion: excellence.
After an internal review, the Kennedy Center expanded its artists’ committee, which picks the nominees, and began accepting recommendations from the public. It also created a committee that includes two previous winners, Ms. Rivera and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to narrow the list of nominees for the Kennedy Center board, which makes the final decisions.
By ASHLEY SOUTHALL