Cuban-born American composer Tania León is one of five 2022 Kennedy Center honorees. León told CBS News she got emotional when the head of the Kennedy Center called her and told she would be honored.
“When I hung up I said, ‘Wow, this is what I was supposed to do,'” said the 79-year-old.
It was an affirmation of what has set her soul on fire for seven decades.
Her decades-long musical career began when her grandmother took her as a little girl to a music conservatory after there were signs she had perfect pitch — the ability to recreate a musical note on the spot without any guidance. That was before she could even read.
It didn’t take long before others noticed that León had a special gift. That inspired her to pursue a career in music.
At the age of 24, in 1967, she boarded a freedom flight from Cuba to the United States.
“This is where the story really began, because the day before my leaving my grandmother asked me, please not to leave,” León said. “And I told her that she made my wings. And I said, ‘Don’t worry. If things don’t work, I’ll be back.'”
Though she could barely speak English when she arrived in New York, music was her first language. She landed a role as a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and earned a scholarship to the New York College of Music where the pianist added composing and conducting to her growing resume.
Over her 50-year career, she has composed music for orchestras, operas and ballets. She conducted shows on Broadway, including “The Whiz” in the 1970s.
But it was in 2021 that she really seemed to hit her stride when she won a Pulitzer Prize in Music for her piece, “Stride,” which was inspired by the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
“Stride for me was this giantic woman, with very big legs, walking no matter what, and in fact in the piece there’s a section that I tried to do that,” she said.
Because of “Stride” and decades worth of memorable work, León was recognized this month as a Kennedy Center honoree.
She said that when one of her former teachers — 89-year-old Jerrold Ross, who gave her her first scholarship in the United States — found out she won the Pulitzer, he gave her a call after searching for her number. They hadn’t seen each other in 40 years, but CBS News helped reunite them earlier this month to surprise León.
“When they write a book of who the great musicians were in the world, your name will be in it,” Ross told León during their meeting.
León told CBS News she wants to live life to her fullest and is already on her next project, teaming up with former poet laureate Rita Dove to create an orchestral piece together.
She has no plans to slow down.
“Life is too short,” she said.
Watch The 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors December 22 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.