Music icon Herb Alpert is using his fortune to help innovators create on their own terms

By Christina Campodonico

Herb Alpert is still making music at 82
Photo by Dewey Nicks

You could say that Herb Alpert’s name has become synonymous with generosity.

Last year the jazz legend and founder of A&M Records gave Los Angeles City College a record-breaking gift of $10.1 million to fund tuition-free music education. Since 1988 his Santa Monica-based Herb Alpert Foundation has given more than $150 million to philanthropic causes. Separately, the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts has conferred more than $7 million in support of individual artists since 1994.

On Friday, the winners of the 23rd annual Herb Alpert Award in the Arts will be honored during a private lunch in Santa Monica. They are choreographer luciana achugar, filmmaker Kerry Tribe, composer Eve Beglarian, director Daniel Fish and interdisciplinary artist Amy Franceschini.

The award — a $75,000 unrestricted gift administered by the California Institute for the Arts and granted to each of five exceptional mid-career artists in the fields of dance, music, film/video, theater, and visual arts — can be a landmark moment in an artist’s career, as well as a major investment in that creator’s future.

“People have finished films. People have put down payments on houses,” says awards director Irene Borger. “There was always the feeling that [the award] would be for a risk-taker — somebody who was not commercial but, as Herb Alpert might say, ‘following their own star,’ really listening to what they felt like they needed to make. And so this was the idea — that it would give an artist a leg up to be able to give themselves some support and also let them do something they might not otherwise be able to do.”

Borger notes that many recipients of the Herb Alpert Award have gone on to win even more high profile awards, such as MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowships, Pulitzer Prizes, Tonys and Oscars.

“There’s still the potential for growth — enormous growth — in the people who are chosen for this prize,” she says. “If there’s one factor that unites 95% of the people who’ve won this prize it’s that they continue working, and that’s remarkable — that they don’t stop.”

Composer Julia Wolfe, a 2015 Herb Alpert Award in the Arts recipient, went on to become a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her concert-length work “Anthracite Fields.” Sought-after tap dance choreographer Michelle Dorrance, a 2014 Herb Alpert Award winner and “one of the most imaginative tap choreographers working today,” according to The New Yorker, became a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. And playwright-actress Lisa Kron, Herb Alpert Award class of ’97, made history in 2015 as part of the first female writing to team to win a Tony for musical score (for the barrier-breaking musical “Fun Home”).

One aspect of the Herb Alpert Award that enables artists to continuing pushing the envelope is the no-strings-attached nature of the gift. Since rising to fame with his band the Tijuana Brass, Herb Alpert himself has made trusting the artist central to his business and philanthropic endeavors. He cofounded A&M Records with the artist as its “centerpiece” and he intentionally stays out of the Herb Alpert Award selection process, handing the decision-making over to three-person panels of leading artists, curators and writers in each field.

For Alpert— 82 years old and still touring with wife Lani Hall of Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66, still producing Grammy-nominated albums like 2016’s “Human Nature” — art is still a passionate pursuit to explore, discover and share.

“I love artists,” says Alpert during a telephone interview last week. “I feel lucky that I’m able to lend a helping hand to them.”

Singer Lani Hall remains Alpert’s muse after 43 years of marriage
Photo by Louis Oberlander

Why did you decide to start this award in the arts?

I just believe in the arts. I love people who are passionate. I had this incredible experience when I was eight years old and it changed my life. I was an introvert and picked up the trumpet in this music appreciation class at my elementary school. … Couldn’t make a sound out of it, but when I finally did, it was talking for me. That experience was something that had a profound effect on my life.

I feel that all kids should have that experience. Now take it up many notches higher. This Herb Alpert Award has been going on the last 22 years or so — these are artists that are in mid-career, they just maybe need a helping hand, a little encouragement.

Is that one of the reasons you started A&M Records — to give artists more control?

I was recording for a major record company for a year and a half and didn’t like the way I was being treated. I was being treated like a number. And the recording facilities they had, it was
ice cold. It was very white on white on white on white. It wasn’t a creative environment.

I was listening to a playback of one of the songs that I recorded and wanted to hear a little bit more bass, so we went over to the console and lifted up the bass track and the engineer slapped my hand and said ‘Don’t ever touch that again.’ He says, ‘This is a union board and blah, blah, blah.’ I filed all that information and then when Jerry Moss and I started A&M Records, 1962, I made the artist the centerpiece of our company. Everything was going to revolve around the artist.

Why has it been so important for you, through your philanthropic work, to support artists through every stage, from the beginning to mid-career and beyond?

I just think that artists have something magical. They bring something to the picture that’s hard to identify.

I had the opportunity to play with Louis Armstrong one night, and I was thinking ‘What is that thing that he has that works?’ Of course he’s passionate about what he’s doing. He has a nice sound. And then I realized that through the years I met a lot of great artists and wasn’t able to identify what is that key — how do I pass on that key that they have that could be helpful to myself and others? And I never could up come up with it. My point is that you can’t really identify that thing that gives you goosebumps when you hear a great artist do their thing.

It remains elusive for you?

It’s always the pursuit. Dizzy Gillespie was a close friend of mine, and Dizzy used to say, ‘The closer I get the farther it looks.’ [Laughs.] I understood that — a never-ending quest for something that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know you can get better.

I’m crazy about the mystery of art. There’s something about that mystery that you can’t identify, whether you’re a painter or a sculptor, a filmmaker, or work in theater. … Whatever it is, you can’t put your finger on that one thing that really touches, when it touches you. When you get those goosebumps, what is that thing?

My point is: Art is personal. It’s the way you see it. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do as an artist. I make the music that comes out of me. I’m not trying to make hit records. I’m just trying to make something that works for me, and I get satisfaction out of it.

I know you paint and sculpt, as well. What inspired you to exercise that part of your brain?

I’m a right-brain guy. I’m 85% on the right side of my head.

Traveling around the world with the Tijuana Brass in the ’60s, I used to gravitate toward the Modern Art sections of museums. This sounds a little maybe, ‘not the right thing to say,’ but I saw paintings, you know a black painting with a white dot and a white painting with black dot. I said, ‘Yeah, let me try that.’ [Laughs.] … So I got some canvas and I’d paint. I started painting like a monkey. I started spreading just colors around the canvas. And little by little, I started to evolve into a particular type of style. One thing led to another. It’s almost out of my hands now. I just do it to do it.

What inspires you now?

Probably my wife, Lani. She’s my muse.

How did you find your artistic voice?

I was trying to copy my favorite musicians for a long time, and I had that realization — ‘Who wants to hear that? They’ve already done it’ — so I got interested when I heard the record, ‘How High the Moon.’ … I was layering my trumpet from tape machine to tape machine because of this record I heard with Les Paul [and Mary Ford], and I came up with this sound. The minute I heard it, I said, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ And I used it on ‘The Lonely Bull’ and all the other records that I did. That was the genesis of the Tijuana Brass sound.

What advice would you give to young artists?

If you want to make it a career be very passionate about what you’re doing, because while you’re sleeping, somebody who wants that same thing you do is practicing. You know the old joke, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice, man. Practice.’ You got to be dedicated. It’s rough out there, especially now. The arts are not being supported like they should be. And if you want to be an artist in today’s environment, man, you gotta find your own voice. I think that is one of the key ingredients.

Do you think art can be an agent for change, especially in troubled political times?

Well I’ll give a ‘hell, yes’ to that. I think art is a crucial ingredient to help make this a more sensible and sane and forgiving and unique world. That’s why I love it so much. Can you imagine a movie without music? It wouldn’t work.

Learn more about this year’s winners at