Visual arts

“Look at the artists.” Meet Herb Alpert, music legend and longtime arts philanthropist

In April 2019, I spoke with legendary musician, record executive, and philanthropist Herb Alpert, who was preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Herb Alpert Awards in the Arts, which he designed with his wife Lani Hall, and in collaboration with the California Institute of the Arts.

It was a typically free conversation with Alpert, whose extensive philanthropy reflects his improvisational approach to music and art. “It’s all about the feel,” he said, “the magic thing you can’t put your finger on.”

Almost three years to the day later, I caught up with 87-year-old Alpert in Los Angeles and wasn’t at all surprised to find him as busy as ever. His foundation had just committed $5 million to the UCLA school of music that bears his name, and the Herb Alpert Awards were set to announce this year’s winners after doubling the number of winners from five to 10. (The winners, who were named May 4, are included at the end of this article.)

And just in case anyone thought Alpert was resting on his laurels, in June he and Hall will embark on the first leg of a transcontinental tour to promote his latest album, “Catch the Wind,” and the Hall’s album, “Seasons of Love”. ”

“Time flies for me,” Alpert said. “The older you get, the faster it goes, and it’s just kind of crazy now, especially with what’s going on in the world and with the virus.” Through all the craziness, Alpert remains obsessed with his north star – groundbreaking, boundary-pushing artists. “Creativity is as important as literacy,” he told me. “Everything of this world of ours was built by creative people, and that’s why I’m digging in and doing my part.”

Here are some excerpts from our chat, which have been edited for clarity.

When did you decide to get into philanthropy?

It was just something I did. I have been blessed far beyond my dreams. I had this amazing opportunity when I was eight to pick up a trumpet and it changed my life. My father was also a big influence. He was very generous to others, so maybe it’s in my DNA. I never thought of buying a Van Gogh or a Monet and sticking it on my wall for my own satisfaction. I thought I could put this money to good use, and I wanted to help others the way I was helped.

Can you tell us about how the foundation makes its grants?

We are able to act quickly. We’ve supported 96 or 97 different organizations over the years, and when a group we’re involved with needs a little extra help, we’re there for them. It’s not like there’s a board that votes and four months later gets a small stipend. We have a team of four people and they are very flexible. We do our due diligence and try to be selective and smart with the money we have.

There’s a little more legwork when we award the Alpert Awards. It is directed by Rona Sebastian, who is the president of the Herb Alpert Foundation. She is able to decode my notes and turn them into action.

Organizations are on our radar in different ways. For example, in 2010, I saw an article in the newspaper that said the Harlem School for the Arts was going to close, and that didn’t make sense to me because Harlem has given so much to the world. We looked into it and decided we wanted to get involved. So little by little we put our toes into it, and one thing led to another, and now it’s blooming.

For this year’s Herb Alpert Awards, you increased the number of awards from five to 10.

That’s right, we double your pleasure [laughs]. When the pandemic hit, we realized that artists were the heart of our country – our world, in fact. And we wanted to make sure they’re supported and can spread joy. Human achievement is born of imagination, and that’s what artists bring to us.

I gravitate towards the road less traveled – I like those artists who are just on the edge or doing something a little off the beaten path. And this year’s artists are passionate about what they seek. They don’t think about how much money they can make; they take risks and think about how they can exercise their own creativity in the most passionate way.

In our last conversation, you mentioned that politicians don’t fully appreciate our artists. Have things improved on this front?

No. If anything, we backed off on that one.

Can you talk about how the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music gift came together?

Well, this freebie goes specifically to the practice rooms, which I saw a few years ago, and they were in the catacombs. It was not a very creative space. It was like a dungeon there, and I wanted to make sure artists and students had a space where they could really feel safe creating whatever they chose to create. School renovation was the missing piece of everything we did at UCLA.

You have a tour that starts in June. You’ll play in 52 cities across the US, Canada and the UK

Absolutely. We have had to cancel many concerts in recent years. We are booked through 2023. Can’t wait to be there, and just hope we’re safe. I know there are people who like to listen to my music, so I’m happy to do so. I feel like I have a responsibility. I’ve sold so many records or CDs or albums – whatever you call them these days, zeros and ones and flows – and it’s nice to know that I can make some people happy with a group of musicians with whom I feel at ease. And of course my wife is a world class singer. [Note: Alpert’s albums have sold over 72 million copies and 29 of his records have reached the Billboard 200.]

Parting thoughts?

We need art now more than ever. It’s one of those times when art really speaks to us, whether it’s painting, sculpture, theater or poetry. I’ve said it before, but I really believe it: creativity is as important as literacy. We must therefore turn to the artists. They are the truth seekers, and we need more truth seekers in this world.

The winners of the 2022 Herb Alpert Prize in the Arts are Yanira Castro and nia love (dance), Bani Khoshnoudi and Terence Nance (film/video), Tomeka Reid and Cory Smythe (music), Aleshea Harris and Virginia Grise (theater) and Guadalupe Maravilla , Martine Syms (visual arts).