Herb Alpert: A School of Music

Ed Hamilton profiles the trumpeter and philanthropist

An artist solely not associated with Black music stepped forward to promulgate the continuance of music and music education---Herb Alpert and his wife Lani Hall. They recently gave $5.5 million to the Harlem School of the Arts and it was their second donation which has permanently kept the doors of this arts education school open. But first, let’s acknowledge who Herb Alpert is.

Herb Alpert and I have something in common: We love jazz, jazz education, and Jaguars. A few years back as I was crossing Labrea at Pico in L.A., I noticed a black Jag with a gold top and being that I also had a Jag, I was admiring it and readily saw who was behind the wheel and I hollered out “What’s up Herb? Nice Jag.” And he gave me the high sign. Yes, it was Herb Alpert, half of A&M Records.

Herb grew up in an East L.A. Jewish family with his dad playing mandolin, mom teaching violin and his brother a drummer. Herb began taking trumpet lessons at eight. Stints at the Tijuana Bull Ring listening to the roar of the crowd inspired him to form the Tijuana Brass that included bassist Pat Senatore and Bucky Pizzarelli and recorded The Lonely Bull—and the rest is music history.

Before hitting number one with The Lonely Bull, he wrote the Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.” By now, he and Jerry Moss were record moguls and had opened A&M Records in Charlie Chaplin’s old movie studio at Sunset and Labrea, in Hollywood. It was a successful company with a multi-rainbow integration of employees and a modest roster of Lani Hall, Rita Coolidge, Billy Preston, Bill Medley, Carly Simon, Joe Cocker, Hugh Masekela and The Carpenters.

After selling A&M Records, he established himself as a philanthropical patron to jazz education with The Herb Alpert Foundation in 1980. His first contribution of $500K to the Harlem School of Music kept the school’s doors open. The school opened around 1960 and was founded by concert soprano Dorothy Manor as a private school providing free visual and performing arts classes to 3,000 mainly African-American and Latino neighborhood children. Alpert said of his concern to save the school, “I couldn’t imagine that an artistic community like Harlem could lose an art center. The arts open up a child’s imagination. I remember when I was in grammar school in the Fairfax District of L.A., my school invited students to come and select an instrument from a table. I picked up a trumpet and became interested in playing. Kids in L.A. and other cities are not having that opportunity anymore. Music programs are gone.” Alpert later donated 30 million dollars to UCLA to endow and create the Herb Alpert School of Music within the School of Ethnomusicology. The school’s dedication is to the performance and study of music in all its diversity: world, popular, classical, and jazz which includes Director Kenny Burrell’s Jazz Studies Department. Jazz Studies offers developmental skills towards degrees in composing, improvisation and jazz theory. He has also contributed $24 Million to the CalArts Music Curriculum.

His musical direction has taken a new turn into jazz appearing several times at the Montreal and European Jazz Festivals. Smooth Jazz radio programming has reestablished his 1979 number 1-Grammy winner Rise for daily rotation on the Smooth networks. He and wife Hall returned to the studio and released the album I Feel You.

And for jazz musicians, Alpert opened the Vibrato Grill Jazz Club restaurant. Manager-bassist Pat Senatore has booked previously Red Holloway, Barbara Morrison, George Cables, Barry Harris, Don Menza.

Herb is also a board member of UCLA’s Friends of Jazz who bring established pianists to the university for performance and lyceums. And also the Thelonius Monk Institute that has recently granted Herb Hancock and Wayne Shorter as professors instructing students toward Masters degrees. Hancock speaking on his professorship, “Fantastic, we just started this program a few months ago and I am just delighted to be working with these students.”

It was 1996 before UCLA decided to create a Jazz Studies Dept. after the director, guitarist Kenny Burrell, had been teaching “Ellingtonia” since 1978. Jazz had returned after the first college jazz concert had been performed by Duke Ellington in 1935. UCLA was the last university to have a jazz department, but it was the first to have Herb Alpert’s funding that would establish the largest diverse music department in the world—Ethnomusicology. He’s truly been “Bullish” with his Foundation securing music education for young music educators to pursue.

Yvonne Campbell, Harlem’s School of the Arts President on renaming the school The Herb Alpert Center on March 11, graciously thanked Alpert saying, “The music legend’s gifts puts his name on the door and means no more worrying about how to keep the lights on.” And at UCLA, The Herb Alpert School of Music continues to extend his legacy of affording music education to students seeking to endeavor the realms of music as their future.

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Ed Hamilton