Sweet Charity: Herb Alpert Foundation Celebrates 25th Anniversary

As the award that bears his name turns 25, the musician and philanthropist keeps on giving

Herb Alpert
Herb Alpert (photo by: Dewey Nicks)

It was in the 1980s that trumpeter Herb Alpert—creator of a ’60s pop phenomenon, the Tijuana Brass, and cofounder of A&M Records—began to ponder what to do with “some extra money” he’d accumulated. “I didn’t want to buy a Monet or a Van Gogh and hang it on my wall,” he says. “I thought I could better use it by trying to help others.”

The Herb Alpert Foundation was incorporated in 1988. To date, it has given $175 million to the arts. Last year it bestowed 99 grants, all in the name of Alpert and his wife of over 40 years, singer Lani Hall. The gifts include funding for jazz education, jazz radio, and jazz musicians in need. Nobody applies; all beneficiaries are sought out by Alpert and his staff of three. May 2019 brought the 25th anniversary of another of his charitable endeavors: the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, five $75,000 grants given annually to mid-career artists in a range of genres. Numerous jazz musicians—including pianist Vijay Iyer, bandleader Butch Morris, composer/saxophonist Steve Coleman, reed player James Carter, and flutist Nicole Mitchell—have been picked by the award’s panel of three artists. This year’s musical winner was bassist, singer, and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello.

The effects have been life-changing. “For so many years,” says Mitchell, “I had attention and respect in Europe, while my work was dismissed in my home country. The Alpert changed that. It was a critical moment for me, as I was being considered for a tenure-track university position, and I’m almost certain the Alpert tipped the scales. Also, after over 20 years of student-loan debt, I was finally able to cut those chains and start to rebuild my life.”

Risk-takers, not traditionalists, get the panel’s ear. “The award is for pioneers,” says its director, Irene Borger. “It is not driven by the marketplace.”

Alpert puts it this way: “There are two kinds of musicians: first, the guys who play the right notes, who know where they’re going and are very precise. You listen to them and you stare out the window because nothing’s really happening. Then there are those other guys who are searching for the right notes. The artists we choose are not the beat of the week; they’re the ones who took the road less traveled.”

Usually that path is strewn with financial woes. But Alpert, who walked it himself, has always combined music-making with a degree of business savvy that few musicians can boast. At eight, he picked up his first trumpet. In 1962, when he was 27, he launched A&M with an album by the Tijuana Brass, whose mariachi-style pop-jazz became one of the defining instrumental sounds of the decade. As he and Jerry Moss (the M of A&M) built up a roster of heavyweights, Alpert took pains to keep the sound of his own bands modern—hence his respect for cutting-edge artists. In 1979, his funk-disco single “Rise” hit No. 1, further lining the A&M coffers. A decade later, he and Moss sold the label to PolyGram. They held out for approximately twice the price their advisers suggested, and walked away with half a billion dollars. A breach-of-integrity suit against PolyGram yielded them another $200 million. Alpert has been giving his money away ever since.

Both UCLA and the foundation’s partnering entity, California Institute of the Arts, now have a Herb Alpert School of Music. Thanks to Alpert, music students at Los Angeles City College attend tuition-free. “Part of Herb’s motivation,” says foundation president Rona Sebastian, “is that people who are dedicated to pursuing the life of a musician will be able to do so. But we provide the experience to young people regardless of whether they’re going to seek a career in the arts. The arts are good for everybody.”

Arts education, of course, is in perpetual need. Nine years ago, the Harlem School of the Arts was $2 million dollars in debt and about to crash. In the New York Times, chairman of the board Christopher Paci voiced a cry for help: “If an angel or group of angels come to the doorstep immediately we’ll be able to save the school.” Alpert stepped forward with a $6 million grant. He has helped keep the school thriving ever since.

His jazz philanthropy seems endless. KJAZZ, the Southern California station, owes most of its survival to Alpert. He funds jazz-composition scholarships at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Musicians perform in luxury at his state-of-the-art jazz club, Vibrato, in the fashionable Bel Air section of L.A. For 11 years he has aided the Jazz Foundation of America, which saves musicians who have fallen on hard times.

Says JFA founding director and vice chairman Wendy Oxenhorn: “Herb and Lani and Rona make it possible for us to not lose anyone to eviction or homelessness when they get sick. They support our Jazz in the Schools program for musicians who are no longer able to tour. We pay them to teach and perform for students. It gives purpose and meaning to their lives and allows them to continue paying their rent.”

Alpert is modest about all of it; he doesn’t even boast of having received the 2012 National Medal of Arts from President Obama. Asked how big a hand he takes in choosing the winners of his own award, he says with a laugh: “Zero. I don’t want to and I shouldn’t. I’m the bank.”

James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret. He is a regular contributor to JazzTimes.