Springsteen & De Niro Among Kennedy Center Honorees

Bruce Springsteen gets worked up during his three-hour set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee on June 13, 2009 Bruce Springsteen gets worked up during his three-hour set at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee on June 13, 2009

Dave Brubeck just wishes his mom could see him now: On Dec. 6, the same day the jazz composer and pianist turns 89, he’ll be among the leading artists feted at the 32nd Kennedy Center Honors Gala.

Dignitaries from President Barack Obama on down will celebrate Brubeck’s career, along with those of Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks and opera singer Grace Bumbry, the Kennedy Center announced Wednesday.

Brubeck says it’s a day that would have delighted his late mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist who was initially disappointed by her son’s interest in jazz. He recalled that when he graduated high school in 1938, his mother wrote in her diary: “I think there is some hope for David after all.”

“Both my older brothers were such terrific musicians — classical musicians. And she wanted three sons that would follow in her footsteps …, and I let her down,” Brubeck said in a phone interview from Seattle, where he was touring this week. “She finally came around to what I was doing. She lived long enough to see good results, and she enjoyed going to the concerts.”

Obama and the first lady will host the 2009 honorees at the White House before attending the gala with them at the Kennedy Center. Brubeck said he is looking forward to meeting the president, who wrote of going to a Brubeck concert as a child in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.”

As usual, the gala will be recorded for broadcast as a two-hour prime-time special on CBS. This year’s will air on Dec. 29 at 9 p.m.

The Kennedy Center Honors recognize performing artists for their contributions to American culture.

Brubeck is credited with helping take jazz into the mainstream, and his band popularized music that departed from the traditional 4/4 rhythm. “Time Out” — the classic album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring the hit “Take Five” in 5/4 time— turned 50 this year. Brubeck has set to music the words of the Old Testament and of Martin Luther King Jr. and, most recently, the photographs of Ansel Adams.

As for the other honorees, Springsteen and De Niro belonged to the category of potential honorees that George Stevens Jr., the creator and producer of the honors show, calls “not if, but when.” But both men are relatively young to be receiving the award, Stevens noted. De Niro turned 66 last month, and Springsteen will be 60 on Sept. 23.

“One of America’s greatest cinematic actors, Robert De Niro has demonstrated a legendary commitment to his characters and has co-founded one of the world’s major film festivals,” Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman said in the announcement of the 2009 recipients. He was referring to the Tribeca Film Festival, which started in 2002.

“With his gritty and honest songs that speak to the everyman, Bruce Springsteen has always had his finger on the pulse of America,” Schwarzman said.

Mel Brooks, 83, is a former standup comedian who made his mark on television with the classic 2000-year-old man routine with Carl Reiner. He soon moved to the big screen, where his hit comedies include “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

For Grace Bumbry, a soprano and mezzo-soprano who became a trailblazer among black singers, being chosen for the award has a special significance. At the first Kennedy Center gala in 1978, Bumbry performed the aria “Vissi d’Arte” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Tosca” in honor of her mentor, the renowned contralto Marian Anderson.

“It’s full circle now,” Bumbry, 72, said by telephone from Munich, where she was judging a vocal competition. “It’s the most beautiful thing.”

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