The Kennedy Center’s Surreal Herbie Hancock Tribute

A strange maiden voyage

The element of surprise figures significantly into the programming of the Kennedy Center Honors event, held annually in December, in part because neither the audience nor the awardees are aware of who will be doing the saluting. Perhaps nowhere was this dynamic more in evidence than at the most recent Honors program, when pundit Bill O’Reilly strolled out to pay tribute to honoree Herbie Hancock. Opening with “I know, I’m surprised too,” the conservative TV host and author delivered a slightly whimsical tribute, joking that although he and Hancock don’t hang out much (“I don’t want to ruin his reputation”), he is a great admirer of the man and his music. O’Reilly also talked about how much he envied the pianist’s humble and serene manner, saying, “I could use him as a role model.” True enough.

But the producers weren’t done toying with expectations. During the musical segment of the tribute to Hancock, Snoop Dogg performed a mash-up of the US3 arrangement of Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and his own “Gin and Juice.” When the music ended, the rapper gave an impassioned if curious shout-out to Hancock, saying, “We love you, Herbie. Thank you for inventing hip-hop.” We’ll leave that one to the musicologists to sort out.

Hancock joined a very exclusive list of nine jazz musicians who have been honored previously by the Kennedy Center since the awards were created in 1978, including Ella Fitzgerald (the music’s first honoree in 1979), Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie and, most recently in 2011, Sonny Rollins. Also honored in 2013 were Carlos Santana, Billy Joel, Martina Arroyo and Shirley MacLaine, who were all guests of the President and First Lady for a special ceremony and reception at the White House the day before. “Michelle and I love this man, not just because he’s from Chicago,” the President said of Hancock. “Not just because he and I had the same hairdo in the 1970s. Not just because he’s got that spooky Dorian Gray doesn’t-get-older thing going on. It is his spirit, it is his energy, which is relentless and challenging.”

After O’Reilly’s speech and a short video, an eclectic but seamless musical tribute directed by Terence Blanchard featured three very different groups, with the trumpeter moving from one configuration to the next. The first group, comprising Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, last played together in 1970 with Miles Davis. Their straight-ahead performance gave way to a band of a different generation, featuring Joshua Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Aaron Parks (on Rhodes), James Genus and Terri Lyne Carrington, that played the ubiquitous Hancock-penned “Watermelon Man.” An even more electrified ensemble featuring Marcus Miller, Lionel Loueke, Vinnie Colaiuta and DJ Mix Master Mike set up the cameo by Snoop Dogg. The funky finale of “Chameleon” brought it all together, ending with the unusual sight of Snoop and O’Reilly taking a bow next to each other.

Jazz made a few cameo appearances elsewhere throughout the evening. Tony Bennett spoke about Billy Joel. An opening solo performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Arturo Sandoval elicited cheers from the black-tie audience. In his video clip, Santana spoke about his deep love of Miles and Coltrane.

The show, hosted by actress Glenn Close, aired on CBS on Dec. 29. It’s unfortunate that viewers didn’t get to see Chick Corea dancing onstage (but off-camera) during the funky mash-ups of Hancock’s music, demonstrating that one of the music’s most cerebral composers can also still move people physically. No surprise there.