Nearly 40 years ago, a Kenyan father was visiting his son in Hawaii and took him to his first jazz concert. The boy was Barack Obama and the performer was jazz great Dave Brubeck.
"I've been a jazz fan ever since," the president said Sunday, crediting the pianist and composer with bringing jazz into the mainstream and transforming it with new rhythms. "The world that he opened up for a 10-year-old boy was spectacular."
Obama greeted Brubeck at the White House on the musician's 89th birthday. The musician was lauded with the Kennedy Center Honors, along with Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks and opera singer Grace Bumbry.
A surprise list of stars performed as part of the nation's highest honors for those who have defined American culture through the arts. It's part of a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.
Jon Stewart opened the tribute to Springsteen, recounting his theory on how the Boss came to be.
"I'm not a music critic, nor historian, nor archivist," Stewart said. "But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe... I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby."
As the story goes, Stewart said Dylan and Brown abandoned the child on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child was raised by "a pack of feral vaudevillians. That child is Bruce Springsteen."
Stewart had first lady Michelle Obama doubled over laughing. And the Boss, seated next to her, even cracked a smile.
John Mellencamp sang "Born in the U.S.A.," Jennifer Nettles from Sugarland did "Glory Days" with a country twist, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder made a surprise appearance, performing an acoustic version of "My City of Ruins," Melissa Ethridge rocked the house with "Born To Run" to a standing ovation and Sting ended the musical tribute with "The Rising" with help from a choir.
About 300 guests, including Jack Black, Edward Norton, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller, Martin Scorsese, Philip Seymour Hoffman celebrated the group with a reception in the East Room of the White House before the show.
"These performers are indeed the best," Obama said. "They are also living reminders of a single truth - and I'm going to steal a line from Michelle here - the arts are not somehow apart from our national life, the arts are the heart of our national life."
Springsteen, 60, described the award he received on Saturday night at a State Department dinner as different than other accolades.
"We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives," he said. "So it's an acknowledgment that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying."
The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.
Later, Aretha Franklin recounted highlights from Bumbry's career. As a 25-year-old singer, Bumbry broke racial barriers in 1961 when she was invited to perform in a production of Wagner's "Tannhauser." She would be the first black opera singer to appear at Germany's Bayreuth, a shine to the composer's work. Many conservative opera-goers were infuriated. But by the end of the performance, the audience applauded for 30 minutes and drew 42 curtain calls.
Later, Jacqueline Kennedy invited Bumbry to sing at the White House.
Bumbry, 72, said returning to meet Obama for the award was the highest honor she has received.
"It tops all of them," she said. "First of all it's my country, and secondly it's the greatest award we have in this country for the arts."
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