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Herb and Lani Alpert: Truth-Telling, the Arts and Heart

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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It's been nearly four years since we last spoke to Herb Alpert. Now in his early 80s and about to go on tour performing with his wife, Lani Hall, Alpert continues to be a dynamic—and vital—force in both the music and art world. His philanthropic efforts on behalf the arts and music education are unparalleled and distinguish him as a true humanitarian.

All About Jazz: Herb, on behalf of All About Jazz, thanks for taking time.

Herb Alpert: Thank you. Always great speaking with you, Nick.

AAJ: First off, how are you and Lani doing musically?

HA: We're good. We're about to go out on tour. We're now doing about 50 performances a year.

AAJ: As a trumpet player, I have to ask you: How are your chops?

HA: Better than ever.

AAJ: Great. OK, let's talk about the May 13 event in New York when the 25th Anniversary of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts will take place at the Caldwell Factory. In that quarter century, there have been 125 HAIA award recipients.

HA: Yes, that's correct. There are awards given each year in five disciplines—music, dance, theater, film/video and visual arts.

AAJ: How did this effort all start?

HA: On an idea, you know. I just had an idea that it would be nice to do something because the National Endowment for the Arts sort of closed their doors. They stopped honoring the artists.

AAJ: OK. I see. That was more of a practical reason, right? What about your personal reasons?

HA: I love jazz. You guys know I love jazz. Jazz relates to all of the art forms because it's about freedom. It's about expression. It's about imagination. And truth-telling. I've met some of the greatest jazz artists that ever lived—some great artists, actors, et cetera over the last few years. There's that running theme. It doesn't matter whether they're Democrats, Republicans or Independents. They're all truth-tellers. You can't be a BSer and be a great artist.

AAJ: The awards. The $75,000 awarded to the artists—is completely unrestricted. Is that correct?

HA: Yeah, they're completely unrestricted. They can take the money and run with it. They get to go to Cal Arts and spend a week there, too. How they spend the money? That's their choice.

AAJ: You've been quoted as saying that with the awards you gravitate towards artists that are risk-takers and explorers. Could you elaborate on that, please?

HA: Well, you know. I always seem to gravitate towards those artists that are on the "Road Less Traveled." They kind of go their own way. They do their own thing—like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. They just do their own thing. Those are the true artists. They get their creativity out. They not concerned if you love it or hate it. They just do it. Those are the artists that appeal to me. Those are the ones that need a little extra shove. Those are the ones that I really admire.

AAJ: And, these award recipients are "mid-career" artists? Right?

HA: Yes. They're mid-career and they need a little stroking. The award gives them that extra little something to get them to maybe see that they're really doing something creatively valuable.

AAJ: Does the Alpert Foundation or Cal Arts follow up on the artists to see their results?

HA: Oh, yeah. We do. Some people get a little bit of extra luck as a result of the award. They may get to be at the right place at the right time as a result of it. There are a lot of great artists out there. I know that I was at the right place at the right time. One of the ingredients of success is that you have to have a little bit of luck on your side as well as talent. Timing is a key element.

AAJ: You've been involved with the California Institute of the Arts a long time.

HA: Well, they do the nuts and bolts of this effort. We go through their organization.

AAJ: What's your perspective of the state of music and also arts education in the U.S. these days?

HA: I'm amazed that our politicians and the people in the positions don't get it. Our whole society is really shaped by artists. Whether they're architects, musicians, actors, painters, or sculptors— they're the people that really make this thing really work. It's sad to see a country that has been so involved in creativity—'cause that's how we started—yet, while we've been able to innovate in so many different areas, to let this happen. We don't want to take that opportunity away from the young folks that are coming up.

AAJ: Well, with all of the technology that's out there it's easier for music artists to bring things to fruition.

HA: Yeah, but, they still have to be heard. There are a lot of great musicians out there. They have the chops and they have everything that they need. But, maybe they don't have the right personality to keep growing. You know.

AAJ: Perhaps an award such as this perhaps can "lubricate" and facilitate their efforts.

HA: Absolutely.

AAJ: I read where you've been involved generously in the past and now again with the Harlem School of the Arts?

HA: Yes, right. We're going to refurbish the school. My involvement started in 2010 when I saw an article that they were closing. They ran out of funds and I jumped in. It was a knee-jerk reaction. I couldn't believe that a community that had given us so many wonderful artists through the years couldn't be supported by New York City.

AAJ: Are you going to be actively involved in the redesign and renovation?

HA: Oh, absolutely! I brought in a great acoustician, John Storyk. We're involved in all the moves.

AAJ: Before we talk about your performing tour with Lani, I know that your artwork and sculpture exhibit "A Visual Melody" will be on tour soon.

HA: Yes, thanks for asking. It's been amazing. I've been painting for almost fifty years and sculpting close to that. We'll have exhibit showings in China, Jackson Hole Wyoming at the Wildlife Museum, and two shows in Palm Desert, California at the Annenberg Estate and the Palm Springs Museum. I can say it's caught me off guard, you know. I've been doing it for my own pleasure. I'm a creative guy and am using 85% of my brain on the right side every day. So, I paint, sculpt, make music. I get a lot of energy from all that.

AAJ: One of the articles I read described your sculptures as "frozen melodies." I would think that they're also examples of "frozen rhythms," no?

HA: Absolutely. Yeah.

AAJ: Are you an "aesthete?" That is, when you are making music, do you visualize colors or when painting or sculpting, is there a process or another dynamic happening like that—or do you just "let it fly?"

HA: All the artwork I do, yeah, I "let it fly." You know, I'm basically a jazz musician at heart. I take that into all the aspects of what I do. I might start with an idea, but, it usually morphs into something else that's usually better. I don't judge it. I think one of the problems a lot of creative people have is that they're so concerned with "Do they like it?" "Don't they like it?""Do I play as well as Miles Davis?" All that stuff. You're trapped if you get into that bag. I just try to do my own thing. I get up to my own "water level" and go. I'm having a lot of fun doing that.

AAJ: I also want to thank you for the work the Herb Alpert Foundation does with the Carmine Caruso Jazz Competition.

HA: Well, you know. I loved Carmine. His vibe is still here with me. Any time I run into a playing snag, I hear his voice telling me: "Remember the feeling. When you play something good, remember the feeling."

AAJ: Same here. With me, he called it "the taste."

AAJ: Let's talk the upcoming music tour with Lani.

HA: We're doing the circuit of the City Wineries. We started off many years ago at the Chicago City Winery. And now, we'll be in Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta and New York. All City Wineries.

AAJ: Your usual group behind you and Lani on the tour?

HA: Yes. It's the same guys. We've been playing together for the last twelve years. They're wonderful musicians and are great guys to be with. They have a great sense of humor. We have a good time. You know, it sounds strange doing all this stuff; at my age when I leave the stage I feel better than when I enter it. I'm gonna keep doing it for as long as I can, you know. What can I tell you? Bada Bing, Bada Boom!

AAJ: Yeah. Doc Severinsen is still at it at 93—he's playing great, too!

HA: You know. You can't put it down. If you put it down for any length of time, it's tough to get back.

AAJ: Herb, on behalf of All About Jazz and yours truly, thank you. It's been great speaking with you again. And, thanks for all the great philanthropic work you, Lani, and the Herb Alpert Foundation do.

HA: Thanks. That's the way it should be. We support something like 92 programs a year. After all, we all have the same ticket in this thing called Life. And, that's the way it should be—with respect and integrity.

AAJ: Like Clark Terry used to say: "The Brotherhood of Man."

HA. Oh, yeah.

AAJ: Thanks again, Herb.

HA: Take care. Thank you!

Photo credit: Dewey Nicks
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