Twenty-five years after starting his own “Genius”-style grant, Herb Alpert is driven to sustain the vitality of art and its never-ending mystique

By Christina Campodonico 

Herb Alpert with wife Lani Hall, with whom he still tours

Ask Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Herb Alpert what it is about art that  really gets him excited, and he can’t quite put his finger on it.

“That’s a really good question, but it’s a hard answer because I love the mystery of art,” he says. “What is that thing that makes you listen to a record and say, ‘Wow, that gives me goose bumps?’ You can’t identify it. You know that you feel something, but it’s in these otherworldly categories. … You just turn the brain off and feel it because it’s all about a feel.”

Following his gut has been a hallmark of Alpert’s career from developing the Tijuana Brass’s uniquely “Ameriachi” sound to co-founding A&M Records with the mission of making the recording artist the “centerpiece” of the label. That go-with-your-gut gusto has extended to his philanthropy, which saved New York’s Harlem School of the Arts from closure in 2010. Via his Santa Monica-based foundation, Alpert donated $500,000 to the school, which provides free to low-cost arts training to youth in northern Manhattan, after reading about the educational center’s plight in the New York Times. 

“You’d have to ask my knees about that one,” he jokes. “It was a knee-jerk experience.”

The Herb Alpert Foundation has since given $7 million to fund the school’s programming and scholarships, with an additional $9.5 million earmarked for the renovation of the school’s façade and interiors starting this summer. Locally, Alpert’s foundation has given $10.1 million to make tuition free for music majors at L.A. City College and his name is on the music schools of UCLA and CalArts.

On Monday, Alpert celebrated 25 years of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (HAAIA), a $75,000 unrestricted prize given to five exceptional mid-career artists (you could call it Alpert’s own version of the MacArthur “Genius Grant”), with a reception in New York City that gathered alumni honorees and selection committee panelists as well as this year’s award winners. Announced last Friday, they are choreographer Pam Tanowitz, filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, singer-songwriter-bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, playwright Lloyd Suh and artist-poet-activist Cecilia Vicuña.

Before Alpert headed out on tour with his wife singer Lani Hall (of Sérgio Mendes & Brasil ’66 fame), we caught up with the 84-year-old to discuss his namesake award, why he continues to back worthy causes and the state of arts education today.

The Argonaut: What kinds of artists are you hoping to support through your foundation’s grant and through the use of your good name?

Herb Alpert: I think real art is in the hands of those that take the road less traveled, the ones that are just expressing themselves as honestly as they can. I really feel that jazz relates to all the art forms because it’s all about freedom, it’s all about expression, it’s all about imagination, and it’s all about truth telling. The great artists that I have met through the years, whether they be musicians, or actors, or writers, poets, sculptors, or painters, they have one thing in common: they tell the truth. They’re truth seekers, and I think the beauty of it is, it doesn’t matter whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians. Who cares? I mean, as long as we’re hearing the truth from people, that’s what we need.

The Argonaut: Are there any specific qualities you encourage HAAIA selection committee panelists to seek out in an artist?

Alpert: I’m not involved in the process, so that’s the beauty of it. It’s really in the hands of the people that are running the organization and the program. … and we’re all looking for the same thing. We’re all looking for creative people that are doing something special. It’s really rough out there being an artist. You have to have good timing on your side, and an abundance of luck, so we try to pick out the artists that have those qualities that you can’t really … Well, let’s see, how do I put it? These are artists that deserve to be heard, deserve to be seen, from our point of view, and that’s the objective.

The Argonaut: Do you think it’s easier or harder now for artists to make it as artists nowadays?

Alpert: I think it’s much harder now, because the competition is worldwide. It’s not just in our little city here, it’s all over. … And when you go to YouTube and you see how some artists have over 77 zillion hits … And others have 12, 14, it’s like everyone’s looking for that viral effect, but it’s not that easy. Luck has to be on your side, talent has to be on your side, and above all, timing. So unless an artist is really passionate about what they’re doing, and believe in what they’re doing, I wouldn’t even attempt to become an artist in today’s environment—a professional artist, that is.

The Argonaut: Philanthropy is a huge part of what you do. Why have you kept philanthropy such a major part of your life as an artist?

Alpert: I didn’t want to buy a Van Gogh painting or a Monet or Picasso and hang it on my wall for my own satisfaction. I wanted to do something that I felt was smart to do with my money to help the arts survive.

I felt that it was important for me to give back. I had this opportunity when I was 8 years old. … I had a chance to pick up a trumpet that was on a table in my grammar school. When I picked it up… I couldn’t make a sound out of it to begin with. But when I did, it was talking for me, because I had a hard time expressing myself, and the horn has been a good friend of mine, and it obviously changed my life.

I feel like kids need to have this opportunity at an early age. If they want to paint, sculpt, write music, poetry, it doesn’t really matter, as long as they get their creativity juices out, I think it’s an important ingredient to become a total human being. They don’t have to be a professional, but I think just having that experience is worthwhile.

The Argonaut: What do you think needs to be improved or enhanced in our music education system?

Alpert: It needs to be funded properly. It needs to have people that are passionate about spreading the word and starting at an early age. That’s why I’m so excited about having kids have this experience, because they’ll pass it on and they’ll encourage others when they grow up and hopefully, be able to do something similar to what I’m doing and maybe on a different scale. Music is an important ingredient in everyone’s life.

Can you imagine music without borders? I think what’s so beautiful now is happening because of the internet, we’re seeing what’s happening all over the world with different types of sounds and music and art. It’s all kind of getting together. This is why we have this opportunity to make this a really special world that we’re living in, and I think we need an ethical revolution. There are a lot of problems that could be solved with just honest folks getting together.

The Argonaut: Why is philanthropy important in 2019 versus previous years? 

Alpert: I think some crazy stuff is happening in this country and in the world and… that’s the way I feel and why I do my part—my little part—in helping people to understand how vital the arts are to what we do as a society and as human beings.

… Our politicians don’t seem to get it. They don’t seem to get the beauty of art and the force of it and what it means to our society. This country was started by creative people. We have so many reasons why we need to keep creativity alive. We have to not just talk about it; we have to put our money where it belongs. And starting with young kids, I think, is a perfect way to get it rolling.

The Argonaut: Looking back at 25 years of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, what are you most proud of? 

Alpert: That I’m able to do it. I’m proud that my trumpet took me a long ways, and it’s not only fed me, but it’s helping to feed some great artists that deserve to be heard.

Visit herbalpertfoundation.org to learn more about the foundation or herbalpertawards.org to read about this year’s winners of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts.

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