"There's a running theme of all great artists and I think it's honesty," says Herb Alpert. The famed trumpet player and co-founder of A&M Records cites the words of a late, great friend, jazz saxophonist Stan Getz. "He used to say, 'I never played a note I didn't mean,'" Alpert recalls. "He meant that. He would not compromise and play something silly just to attract your attention. He was always honest with what he was doing."
As a musician, Alpert is a living legend. He spent the 1960s leading the Tijuana Brass through a string of hits. As a solo artist in the 1970s, he topped the U.S. charts with "Rise." Two decades later, that song would reappear as the major sample for Biggie Small's hit "Hypnotize." He's won a lot of Grammy awards and sold even more records. A&M, which was sold in the 1980s today exists as part of Universal Music Group, was home to major artists from Burt Bacharach to The Carpenters to The Police. He's also an accomplished painter and sculptor. Last year, his show "in??ter??course" ran at Robert Berman Gallery in Bergamot Station.
With such a long and successful career, Alpert has a lot of wisdom to dispel and he does that when we meet at the Santa Monica headquarters of the Herb Alpert Foundation. He says things like, "While you're sleeping, someone else is practicing," and "Kindness is contagious. If you can be kind to other people, it's going to come back to you."
The most crucial statement that Alpert makes, though, is about helping out when you're needed. "In order to really be a success in this life, I think you have to give back to others," he says. That's what Alpert has been doing for more than two decades.
Late in the 1980s, he and his wife, singer Lani Hall Alpert (who worked with Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66 and sang the theme for James Bond flick "Never Say Never Again") launched the Herb Alpert Foundation. The organization supports arts education, particularly jazz education, programs and other projects. It's also the source of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. To date, the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts is responsible for over $6 million in grants. To say the award is prestigious would be an understatement. Two past winners have Pulitzers as well. A number of others have also been awarded MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships. On Friday, May 9, five more mid-career artists reached the next level. Each winner was awarded $75,000.
Although Alpert isn't personally involved in the selection process for the awards, they are driven by his own interest in the arts. "I love artists who are following their passion and not concerned with commercial success necessarily," he says. "They're thinking about fulfilling their creative needs. That's what this award is about."
This year's winners include tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance, filmmaker Deborah Stratman, musician Matana Roberts, writer/director Annie Dorsen and artist Daniel Joseph Martinez. The recipients of the awards were judged by their existing body of work in addition to future plans. "It's a real kind of nerve-wracking, but inspiring, application process because you dig deep and you all have to sort of curate something for them to see either most recently or retrospectively of what you created," says Dorrance. This year's winners have cultivated careers that are marked by creative and challenging work. In 2013, New York-based Dorrance created a piece presented at St. Mark's Church that played with the acoustics of the venue by incorporating everything from barefoot dancing to wooden taps.
Alpert's work as a philanthropist is, in part, inspired by his own background. When Alpert was 8 years-old, he took a music appreciation class at his grammar school. Among the instruments that the children could choose to play was a trumpet. It didn't matter that Alpert didn't immediately know how to play the instrument. "I kind of enjoyed the process of trying to learn how to play it," he says.
Arts education directly impacted Alpert's life. "it completely changed the direction that I was going in," says Alpert. As a high school student, he took up with a band. They won a television competition eight weeks in a row. That led to gigs at weddings and parties. "I was making money playing," he says. "Most of all, it gave me a lot of satisfaction."
Alpert has "near-perfect pitch." In other words, he can hear a song on the radio and figure out how to play it. In his early days, that was a tremendous talent to have, but, he learned, it wasn't everything. "I had a pivotal experience in the army, where I met some trumpet players that were a lot better than me," says Alpert. "At that point, I decided that if I was ever going to be a professional, I had to come up with my own style."
Music led Alpert to visual arts. In the 1960s, when Alpert was touring with the Tijuana Brass band, he would visit museums and check out the modern art sections. That prompted him to give painting a shot. Once he returned home, Alpert bought canvas and acrylic paints. "I started painting like a monkey," he says. "I would squirt different colors on the canvas and move it around to create some type of form."
With time, his painting skills improved and he had some pieces that were ready to hang on his own walls. That led to a gallery show and Alpert has been painting and sculpting ever since. He also continues to play the trumpet on an almost daily basis. "You never get to the place as a musician where you're totally satisfied," he says. That sentiment ties to the Herb Alpert Award. Alpert understands that even an accomplished artist has more work to do.
Dizzy Gillespie, another old pal, told Alpert, "The closer I get, the farther it looks." That's how Alpert now sums up the creative process, regardless of discipline. "You're always trying to get to that next level because there's always something that you always feel that you can attain if you put in the time," he says. "That's the beauty of art, the discipline of doing it. There are rewards for that. The reward is getting better at what you do."