On behalf of Michelle and myself, welcome to the White House. This is a season of joy, tradition and celebration.
And today, it is our great joy to continue a White House holiday tradition —- a celebration of performers who have transformed the arts in America, our extraordinary Kennedy Center Honorees.
We are joined by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, members of Congress and members of the Kennedy family. I see sprinkled through the crowd some pretty fancy company, as well -- you've got the Queen of Soul. You've got Martin Scorsese -- he knows a little bit about film-making. And my spectacular First Lady is here.
I especially want to thank the man who created these Honors more than three decades ago and who has produced them ever since -- and whom I was proud to name as co-chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities -- George Stevens, Jr. George. And I want to also thank Stephen Schwarzman and the Kennedy Center trustees; as well as president Michael Kaiser and all those who sustain President Kennedy's vision of a "great stage" celebrating "the best coming from this country and abroad."
These performers are indeed the best. They are also living reminders of a simple 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 at the heart of our national life.
In times of war and sacrifice, the arts -- and these artists —- remind us to sing and to laugh and to live. In times of plenty, they challenge our conscience and implore us to remember the least among us. In moments of division or doubt, they compel us to see the common values that we share; the ideals to which we aspire, even if we sometimes fall short. In days of hardship, they renew our hope that brighter days are still ahead.
So let's never forget that art strengthens America. And that's why we're making sure that America strengthens its arts. It's why we're reenergizing the National Endowment of the Arts. That's why we're helping to sustain jobs in arts communities across the country. It's why we're supporting arts education in our schools, and why Michelle and I have hosted students here at the White House to experience the best of American poetry and music.
And it's why we're honored to celebrate these five remarkable performers, who for decades have helped to sustain and strengthen the American spirit.
You can't understand America without understanding jazz. And you can't understand jazz, without understanding Dave Brubeck. His mother was a classical pianist with high hopes for her son. And by the time he was four, he was playing himself. But by the time he was a teenager, he was tearing up local honky-tonks. Even his mother had to admit: "There is some hope for David after all."
And perhaps it was World War II —- his service in Patton's Army -— that changed his sound, forcing him, as he said, to work the war out of his system by playing some "pretty vicious piano." Whatever it was, his sound —- the distinctive harmonies and improvisations of the Dave Brubeck Quartet —- would change jazz forever, prompting Time magazine to put him on the cover as the leader of a new jazz age.
Having brought jazz into the mainstream, he then transformed it, with innovative new rhythms on albums like Time Out -- the first jazz album to ever sell more than a million copies and still one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
Dave Brubeck has never stopped reaching new audiences: Performing for Presidents from Johnson to Reagan; composing orchestral tributes to Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II; and even in his 80s, dazzling jazz festivals across America.
And I know personally how powerful his performances can be. I mentioned this to Dave backstage. In the few weeks that I spent with my father as a child -- he came to visit me for about a month when I was young -- one of the things he did was to take me to my first jazz concert, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1971, and it was a Dave Brubeck concert. And I've been a jazz fan ever since. The world that he opened up for a 10-year-old boy was spectacular.
And, Dave, for the joy that you've given millions of jazz lovers like me, for your six decades of revolutionary rhythms, you are rightly honored -- especially today, on your 89th birthday.