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Herb Alpert: Always in Tune
How a nice Jewish boy from East L.A. launched the Tijuana Brass, sold more albums than the Beatles, and at 76 remains the coolest guy in the room
One night in the fall of 1969, in the midst of his unparalleled triumphs as a performer and music executive, Herb Alpert came apart. Onstage in Munich, Germany, with the Tijuana Brass, he was beset by a strange and terrifying sensation. He saw himself sitting in the third row of the audience. For the rest of the evening he watched as someone named Herb Alpert blew the horn. “The question hit me,” he recalls, “ ‘Why is that guy seemingly so happy when he’s playing the trumpet but so unhappy when he’s with a group of people?’ ”
Alpert’s out-of-body experience devastated him, both in its own right and because it indicated a crisis he’d long sensed approaching. “I don’t think I had a handle on what I was doing or who I was,” he says. “I had money and notoriety, but something was missing.” Things only worsened when Alpert returned home to Los Angeles. He picked up the trumpet and could no longer play. Just that quickly he had succumbed to a career-threatening psychosomatic episode. “I started stuttering through the horn,” he says.
Alpert needed help. He flew to New York to talk to Carmine Caruso, a trumpet teacher who counseled brass players.
“I said, ‘Carmine, what’s wrong?’
“ ‘If I tell you, it won’t help.’
“That intrigued me,” Alpert says. “So I ordered drinks and got him a little lushed up. Then I questioned him again.
“ ‘Carmine, what am I doing wrong?’
“ ‘Yursh trying to play the trumpet wiff your mouth open.’
“He was right. I had formed a bad habit. I was playing with my lips apart. I wasn’t touching the mouthpiece.” Caruso prescribed a series of exercises, but as he predicted, they didn’t work.
“My problem,” Alpert says, “was inside.”
Herb Alpert had lost his sense of self. “He was on a merry-go-round, spinning,” says his wife, singer Lani Hall. “He was very successful. He had a record company that kept getting bigger and bigger, but he had to find out who he was. ‘Is this defining me?’ he asked.” Alpert needed to confront everything that was wrong: a faltering first marriage, a career in danger of becoming more about commerce than music, and an underlying fear that he had not only lost his identity but was failing to realize all of his artistic talents. It took years of therapy, but he “pulled himself out of it,” says Hall. “He worked very hard to do it.” She calls Alpert’s breakdown “a real blessing.” He agrees. “I wouldn’t be the man I am if this had not happened.”
Forty years later, thanks to that singular breakthrough, Herb Alpert, who fronted one of the emblematic bands of the 1960s, sold 72 million albums, and cofounded A&M Records, is pushing himself harder than ever. At 76, when most people are slowing down, he has a new CD, I Feel You, out on Concord Records. Alpert tours the West this month, appearing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and the Segerstrom Center in Orange County. A recent tour of the Northeast in support of the album concluded with a performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.
I Feel You features Alpert on trumpet and Hall on most of the vocals. The CD is plainly the work of the man behind the Tijuana Brass. (It includes a new version of “What Now My Love,” one of the Brass’s biggest hits.) It is also experimental and far-ranging, establishing Alpert as more than a midcentury artifact. “I feel like it’s a blend of pop and jazz, but not fusion,” says Alpert. “It’s music with its own spin. If I can take a familiar song and put a twist on it, I’ll try.” The album includes smoky arrangements of such standards as “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Call Me” (a long-ago hit for A&M artist Chris Montez), a reimagining of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and the sorts of Brazilian classics (“Berimbau”) for which Hall, formerly the lead singer of Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66, is celebrated.
Further attesting to his breakthrough, Alpert is achieving success as a painter and sculptor. His swirling acrylic-on-canvas abstractions in vivid reds, greens, and violets are, like his music, deeply felt and boldly chromatic. His bronzes are even more profound. They are ambitious, emotionally engaging, and powerful. During a four-month exhibit last summer and fall, the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills displayed 15 of his massive pieces. The two-ton “black totems” were valued at $250,000 each, and most of them sold. The ultimate outgrowth of all this creative ferment is the Herb Alpert Foundation, which he uses to encourage the imaginative self-expression of others. In an era of diminished budgets for the arts, it has given away more than $100 million, including $30 million to endow the school of music at UCLA, $15 million for the school of music at CalArts, and $4.6 million for P.S. Arts, which funds programs for cash-poor public education across Southern California. The foundation is becoming a major force in Los Angeles philanthropy.
Herb Alpert’s house looks down on nearly six rocky acres of Malibu beachfront planted with towering Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees. Its outstanding features—an ornate front door and a Chinese pediment over the foyer—are the work of the baroque designer Tony Duquette. Yet both outside and in, this is a place where the artist in residence has made the most telling statements. Alpert’s sculptures command the grounds. With names like Guardian Spirit, Eagle, and Ancient Source, they rise from stone-walled gardens and jutting promontories. Alpert’s paintings dominate the interiors. Several hang in the living room. Several more line the halls. Alpert’s trumpets—the Chicago Benge, which he played as leader of the Tijuana Brass to record “A Taste of Honey,” “Tijuana Taxi,” and “Spanish Flea,” as well as the German Sonare, which he currently uses for practice and performances—are at the ready in an adjacent recording studio.
By 6:15 each morning, Alpert, clad in a loose-fitting black sweat suit and Nikes, pads into the kitchen. He is lean and fit, his age betrayed only by thinning hair in back and a scruffy gray beard. After flicking on a small oven, he inserts a metal tray that holds a hard sheet of wax. Although his sculptures can reach 18 feet in height, they start as four- to eight-inch maquettes. As Alpert waits for the wax to become soft enough to shape into one of these miniatures, he downs a glass of NanoGreens, a cloyingly sweet diet supplement fortified with sufficient algae and barley grass powder to stock a health food store. “It’s guaranteed to make you feel three months younger,” he cracks. Then for 30 minutes he loses himself in his task, laboring less by design than touch. “You have to be free,” he says. “I just make shapes that feel good to me. I fool with it until I get a good feeling.”
As 7:30 approaches, Alpert wanders into the recording studio to warm up on the Sonare. “There are 240 muscles that need to be in sync to play the horn,” he says, and for a half hour he does exercises and runs through arpeggios. Once he’s finished, he sits at a Yamaha grand piano and glides over sequences of chords. Later he will return to his trumpet and let loose with renditions of “Desafinado” by João Gilberto and “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Triste” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the brilliant Brazilian composer whom he knew and admired. “The guy was a genius,” Alpert says in his soft tenor voice. “But he was an unpretentious person. Lani and I were going to do an album with him—he would sing in English, Lani in Portuguese—but he passed away.”
Alpert is all about art, all the time. Yet as he goes about his business, he betrays no sense of pressure or anxiety. “For me,” he says upon emerging from the studio, “the important thing is not to think or analyze but to accept my own creativity.” After navigating a passageway marked by a photo of Stan Getz, the formidable jazz saxophonist whose albums Alpert produced at A&M Records, he enters his painting atelier, an airy space stacked with brushes and smelling of pigment. Alpert has been working on a new piece for a couple of weeks—a few minutes one morning, a few more the next. On this day he is back at it.
An hour later Alpert walks to a service porch, climbs into a golf cart, and rolls away. “Sid, can you unwrap that big piece?” he says to an assistant over a walkie-talkie. He steers along a twisting path that leads to a high-ceilinged, hangarlike structure large enough to accommodate four forklifts and several sculptures in progress. The center of attention is a looming 12-foot-tall monolith. “That started in my kitchen,” Alpert says as he pulls to a stop. “For the last month I’ve either been up on a forklift shaping the clay by hand or standing on the floor using a laser light to guide the guys who help me. I’m intrigued by what makes something good to look at. I’m looking for things that resonate more in the soul than in the eyes.” He believes this piece is just about right. In a few days workers will make a mold, which after it sets will be removed and trucked to an Eastside foundry.
As the sun dapples down on this fall afternoon, one week before Alpert must let go of I Feel You for mastering and production, he revisits his recording studio. At a large table topped with electronic equipment and two Macs powered by Logic software, he listens to the numbers. He keeps time by slapping his hand on the back of a nearby chair. Glancing at the monitors, whose oscillating waves track surging notes, Alpert shakes his head in wonder. “The thing that’s fascinating to me about this technology,” he says, “is that it records music in zeros and ones. It’s not like the old days.” Alpert has been in the music business so long that he can recall the primitive devices that predated tape recorders and captured sound on wire. Now he’s digitally sophisticated enough to mix his own albums on a computer. Still, the goal for him is the same as ever—to express genuine emotion. “It’s a huge mystery to me,” he says, “but this equipment can record feelings.”
To spend time with Alpert is to discover that in both music and the visual arts, he prizes unfettered imagination and heartfelt sentiment above all. The artists he most admires are those who trust their guts. Alpert recalls asking Getz, a master of bebop, for instruction in its basic two-five-one chord sequence. “Stan looked at me,” he says, “and asked, ‘What’s that?’ I thought, ‘That’s the sort of freedom I’m looking for.’ ” Alpert saw the same spirit in another A&M stalwart, the soulful Brazilian Milton Nascimento. “I signed him in 1970,” he says. “He was playing intricate things, but he didn’t really know what a chord was. Everything he did was intuitive.”
Learning to rely on his instincts was central to Alpert’s psychological breakthrough; maintaining such faith is sometimes still a battle. Nothing brings out his doubts more than the imminent completion of a project. As “Viola Fora de Moda” from his new CD fills the studio, he begins to tinker. With a few keystrokes he changes the piano track, believing that he is enhancing the entire recording as well as the performance of the vocalist—his wife. No sooner does he finish than she walks in.
Dressed in black from head to toe, pale oval face set off by reddish blond ringlets that accentuate a warm yet assertive smile, Lani Hall is every bit the musician her husband is. “Oh no, you’re not remixing something, are you?” she demands, having caught Alpert in the act. “Which one?”
“ ‘Viola.’ ”
“I was conscious that I didn’t put the piano where I wanted it. Here, check this.”
As the new version plays, Hall sways to the rhythm, but from her expression it’s clear that she dislikes what her husband has done.
“I don’t know, hon,” she says. “It’s now all out of whack for me.”
“You work on it then, but it just feels all out of whack to me.”
With that, Hall disappears, leaving Alpert not so much chastened as bemused. “You know the difference between a female singer and a terrorist?” he finally manages. After a beat, he offers the answer: “You can reason with a terrorist.”
But he knows she is right. They share a creative vision. When he gets off course, she brings him back. “On one level she’s almost like a schoolgirl with him,” says music mogul Lou Adler, a longtime mutual friend. “She thinks he’s the greatest and the most handsome. She’s very positive. But she’s no flatterer. She can be brutally honest, and she demands that Herb live up to high standards.”
When Alpert eventually signs off on I Feel You, he has restored “Viola.” “I was guilty of doing what I tell people not to do,” he says. “It felt good, but I thought I could make it better. I was wrong.”
From the start, Herb Alpert has been surrounded by music. His mother played the violin, his father the mandolin, his brother the drums, and his sister the piano. Born into a Jewish family in Boyle Heights, Herb grew up in the Fairfax District, where his parents moved when the fortunes of his father, a downtown manufacturer of women’s suits and garments, improved. He was eight when he picked up a trumpet from a table stacked with instruments at Melrose Elementary School. “I was very shy,” he says. “The horn made a loud noise and spoke for me.”
Initially Alpert was just a kid with a toy. “It was a piece of plumbing,” he says. His mom and dad, however, were determined to see him master it. Each week Benjamin Klatzkin, a former principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic, arrived at the Alperts’ house at the corner of Fuller and Rosewood. Sitting side by side on chairs in the boy’s bedroom, the two worked through exercises in Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet, a text in print since the 1860s. One afternoon when Alpert was in his midteens, he played an étude from the book and looked up to see his teacher crying.
“It’s so bootiful,” Klatzkin exclaimed.
“I had touched him deeply,” Alpert recalls. “It was the first time I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I have something.’ ”
By his junior year at Fairfax High School, Alpert was moving beyond classical music. He was listening to Harry James and Bunny Berigan, particularly his recording of “I Can’t Get Started.” Then, he says, “I started listening to progressive jazz, especially everyone’s favorite, Charlie Parker.” Alpert also had an ear for pop. He fronted a band called the Colonial Trio. After winning the KTLA competition show High Talent Battle for several weeks running, his group began picking up wedding and bar mitzvah gigs. Among the Jews of West Los Angeles, Alpert was a minor celebrity.
He enrolled at USC as a music major, but after two years he dropped out. “We had these prerequisite courses like ‘Man and Civilization’, ” he recalls with a grimace. He was drafted and became solo trumpet with the Sixth Army Band at the Presidio in San Francisco. Alpert grew comfortable playing anywhere, including at funerals. “I once played taps for 14 services in a single day,” he says. At the same time the military forced Alpert to face his limitations. “I ran into trumpet players who were much better than me. I realized that if I didn’t come up with a style of my own, I was never going to be a professional.”
Alpert wed his high school sweetheart, the former Sharon Lubin, whose friend married Lou Adler, then an aspiring lyricist and music manager from East Los Angeles. “You know the expression, ‘We went to separate schools together,’ ” says Adler. “That was me and Herbie. We matched up immediately. When he got out of the service, we said, ‘Let’s write some songs.’ ” In 1957, the two went to work at L.A.-based Keen Records for the legendary artists and repertoire man Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. “Our job was to log all the sessions Bumps recorded,” says Alpert. “We’d listen to the tapes of the various artists and give them ratings for first verse, second verse, bridge, and third verse. That was how we got our feet wet in the music business.”
Keen’s main draw was the rhythm and blues singer Sam Cooke. Alpert and Adler struck up a friendship with him, and in 1958, the three wrote one of the singer’s top-selling hits, the catchy teen ballad “Wonderful World”: “Don’t know much about a science book. Don’t know much about the French I took.”
Cooke articulated what would become Alpert’s artistic philosophy. “He was very intuitive,” Alpert says. Cooke urged him to value true sentiment over all else. “Sam was trying to start his own label, and one day he auditioned this extremely good-looking guy from the Caribbean,” Alpert remembers. “Sam and I stood in the control room listening to him play. Sam asked me what I thought. I said, ‘I like him.’ Then Sam said, ‘OK, turn your back on him and now listen another five minutes.’ Which I did, and I realized the guy wasn’t sending anything. I didn’t get him. That’s what Sam wanted me to understand. To him, it never mattered how an artist looked. He didn’t care. He always said, ‘People are listening to a cold piece of wax. It either makes it or it don’t.’ What he meant was, ‘Trust your feelings. If it doesn’t feel good to you, it’s not going to feel good to anyone else.’ ”
In 1959, Alpert and Adler launched Jan and Dean, producing the duo’s first album. Alpert brought them a doo-wop tune called “Baby Talk.” Their falsetto-infused rendition rose to number ten on the charts, setting the stage for a decade of surf music to follow. Soon afterward, Alpert, Adler, and disc jockey B. Mitchell Reed started a music production company called HerBLou. Although Reed was outgoing, Alpert and Adler seemed unlikely industry operators. “I didn’t speak much at all,” says Adler, “and Herb spoke less than I did. If we were in a crowded room, I’d hardly get involved in the conversation, and Herb just wouldn’t participate.” Nonetheless the partners had an innate sense of where pop music was headed.
At 25 Alpert was becoming a macher, but he felt unfulfilled. He liked being a producer, but he also wanted to be a performer. The partnership split up. “I kept Jan and Dean,” says Adler, “and Herbie took the tape recorder. Those were our only real assets.” Reed went back to spinning records. Alpert tried his hand at a singing career. He recorded four singles at RCA under the name Dore Alpert. None made the charts, and Alpert hated the experience: “The recording studio at RCA was very chilly—a cold atmosphere.” Worse, when Alpert asked if he could add a trumpet track to one of his songs by using an overdubbing technique he’d been experimenting with, the request was denied. “They said it was against union regulations.”
Disenchanted with the music business, Alpert drifted. With striking good looks—jet-black hair, darting brown eyes, and a delicately tapered nose—he tried acting. “But I didn’t have what it takes,” he says. Music, he realized, was his love. Nights found him at Sardi’s listening to Shorty Rogers or taking in Gerry Mulligan wherever he was playing, but when Alpert sat in on trumpet with bands at Hollywood piano bars, nothing clicked. He still hadn’t developed his own style. His playing suggested Clifford Brown with a little Louis Armstrong thrown in.
It was during this time that Alpert and young music executive Jerry Moss, then with Scepter Records, started driving to Tijuana to attend bullfights. “I was there for the Hemingway machismo thing,” says Moss, “but Herbie experienced it more deeply.” The spectacle thrilled Alpert. “There was so much energy and excitement,” he says. “The fans drinking wine from bota bags, the brightness of the colors, and the fanfare of trumpets that announced each event—it got under my skin. I was curious to see if I could capture that feeling on a record. I wanted to channel that energy.”
Alpert shut himself in a garage studio behind his West Hollywood home. Finally the trumpet was no longer just a piece of plumbing. Indeed, he was not even aware of it as a tangible thing. “It was part of me,” he says. Using session musicians and working from a song called “Twinkle Star” by the pianist Sol Lake, Alpert fashioned a number distinguished by two resounding horn tracks, both of which he played, overdubbing them onto tape using the technique RCA had forbidden. “It’s amazing what Herbie did,” says Moss. “He was an innovator.”
Alpert and Moss formed A&M Records, and in the late summer of 1962, it released The Lonely Bull by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. “We had our first hit,” says Moss, “and I gave up all my other business and went to work full-time with Herb. By this time we were really good friends.” The two completed each other; Moss was relentless, Alpert sensitive. Success seemed inevitable. At first, however, A&M did not get everything right. In the early ’60s, the label rejected what became a generation’s anthem to libido—the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” “I thought it was too long and out of tune,” says Alpert. A&M also missed a bigger opportunity. It failed to sign the Beatles. Many other labels did, too, Alpert says. “I didn’t see what was happening.”
The big break for the Tijuana Brass came in 1965 with Whipped Cream & Other Delights, the album that featured “A Taste of Honey” and what is arguably the decade’s sexiest piece of cover art: a photograph of a dark-haired vixen clad in nothing but shaving cream and scarce little of it. Following Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, Volume 2 and South of the Border, both released earlier, Whipped Cream made the group a sensation. A&M put together a six-man band that was soon playing in giant arenas and on national television.
In November 1965, the band performed on what was then America’s greatest stage, CBS’s The Ed Sullivan Show. Although awkward and raspy, Sullivan had introduced the country to some of its biggest acts—among them Elvis Presley—and he took the role of national tastemaker seriously. During a rehearsal, he put an arm around Alpert and said, “Herb, I discovered you.”
“Ed, it’s too late,” Alpert replied.
The Brass was already on its way. In 1966, it sold 13.5 million albums, outpacing the group Alpert had missed and Sullivan had ushered into American stardom—the Beatles.
In an era dominated by the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix, the Tijuana Brass was an anomaly. Its music was upbeat, effervescent, and romantic, encouraging intimacy and promising happiness. Herb Alpert provided the soundtrack for that part of the 1960s in which the future felt limitless, subdivisions proliferated, and the cocktail parties never seemed to end.
Many of the Brass’s hits became advertising jingles (“Mexican Shuffle” turned into “The Teaberry Shuffle”) or themes for television shows (thanks to The Dating Game, Whipped Cream inspired the fantasies of a generation of bachelors and bachelorettes). Not that Alpert consciously cast himself as the pied piper of the good life. “I made the music that was coming out of me,” he says. “I had all these songs in my head that I’d played over the years, and I was mainly drawn by their melodies. Being an instrumentalist, I couldn’t do otherwise because I rarely had the advantage of a lyric. Most of the songs the Tijuana Brass did were ones I whistled when I was alone.”
Along the way Alpert developed a distinctively bright trumpet sound, although he often discounted the accomplishment. To Miles Davis’s remark that he could recognize Alpert’s playing after just three notes, Alpert replied, “You hear one note, and you know it’s Miles.” Alpert also brought Latin American music into the mainstream, so much so that on meeting him, a surprised Ringo Starr exclaimed, “I thought you were a short, fat Mexican.”
The success of the Tijuana Brass positioned A&M Records as a dominant force in the music business. Alpert and Moss could not have been better paired to take advantage of the opportunity. “Jerry brought everything you needed to be successful in business,” says Lou Adler. “He was consummate. He could negotiate. He could promote. That allowed Herbie to concentrate on bringing in great artists.” Alpert’s first coup was Sergio Mendes, the Brazilian pianist and bandleader. “I had no hesitation about signing with an upstart label,” says Mendes. “The way Herb approached me felt right.” Alpert produced Brasil ’66’s best-selling debut album. “It was a great experience to be in the studio with him,” says Mendes. “We brought the repertoire and arrangements, and he trimmed where we needed trimming and got us to add where we needed to add.” While working on the album, Alpert became acquainted with Lani Hall. “We were just friends,” he says. “I enjoyed working with someone with such an extraordinary voice.”
By 1967, A&M Records was doing so well it purchased the Charlie Chaplin Studios on La Brea Avenue. There, says Adler, the label established itself “as a place for artists to further their art without worrying about the commercial world.” The congenial atmosphere was, at Alpert’s insistence, the opposite of what he’d experienced at RCA. Soon A&M had signed everyone from the moody pop-psych band Procol Harum to the British blues belter Joe Cocker and a number of English rockers, among them Humble Pie and Spooky Tooth. It was a broad array of talent, but the trend was obvious. “I was looking for edgy acts,” says Moss. “I felt that’s where the game was going.”
Predictably, when a demo by a pair with an innocent sound and a sweet, straight-cut look came over the transom in 1969, A&M rejected it. “Every other label in town had also turned us down,” says Richard Carpenter, who’d written the four tracks to showcase the voice of his sister, Karen. “But I thought we had something, and I arranged for the demo to be resubmitted circuitously to Herb.”
Alpert’s first-floor office, with its fireplace, hooked rugs, and flawless sound system, was a perfect place to immerse oneself in music. “I closed my eyes and played the tape,” he recalls. “It wasn’t the kind of thing I’d have gone out of my way to listen to, but I could immediately tell that these kids were making the music that was real to them. It was an honest reflection of who they were as musicians. It’s the same thing I look for in jazz, and when I find it, it always interests me. On top of that Karen had a remarkable voice. She reminded me of a singer I loved in high school, Patti Page. It felt like she was sitting in my lap and singing just to me.”
Drawing on the wisdom Sam Cooke had imparted, Alpert told Jerry Moss that they should sign the Carpenters. So close was the relationship between the partners (they had a handshake agreement) that A&M made the deal. But the group’s first album did only modestly well, and many at the label lost faith.
“A lot of people informed Herb, ‘This band will never sell. Cut your losses,’ ” says Richard Carpenter.
Alpert was undeterred. “He said, ‘There’s something there,’ ” Carpenter recalls. “He said, ‘I’m going to give them another go.’ ”
Trusting his instincts, Alpert, who two years earlier had enjoyed a rare hit as a vocalist with the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “This Guy’s in Love with You,” slipped the Carpenters another Bacharach-David tune. “Herb gave us the lead sheet to ‘(They Long to Be) Close to You,’ ” says Carpenter. “It was just lyrics, melody, and chord symbols. I did the arrangement. A&M released ‘Close to You’ in May 1970.”
The record shot to number one, selling more than three million copies in its first run. The Carpenters became the best-selling act in A&M history.
In the fall of 1968, as his breakdown approached, Herb Alpert and his first wife threw a big party at their home on Maple Drive near Sunset, one of the best addresses in Beverly Hills. It was an extravagant affair—backyard tented, waitstaff hovering. Among the guests were Sergio Mendes and Lani Hall. “I watched Lani exploring our house,” says Alpert. “We’d had a high-priced designer do it, and it was filled with expensive things out of Architectural Digest. I was thinking to myself, ‘She must think this is pretty impressive, pretty cool.’ A few days later I asked Lani if she’d had a good time.
“She said, ‘Well, not really.’
“I said, ‘What was the problem?’
“And she replied in pretty strong terms, ‘That house doesn’t look anything like you. It doesn’t feel like you. It’s pretentious.’
“When she said that, I thought, ‘She has the power to look right through me.’ ”
In December 1969, deep in the throes of his trumpet block, Alpert disbanded the Tijuana Brass. Not long after, he was divorced. But for Alpert, good came out of bad—he was seeing Hall. “Lani’s honesty was irresistible,” he says. “She doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘lie.’ Everything she says is true.” For Hall’s part, the initial attraction was physical. “His smile had a lot to do with it,” she says. “It captured my heart.” But the real allure went deeper. “I’d never met anyone that kind. It was pivotal. I thought if I hung around, his true colors would come out. They never did.”
The two married in 1974 at Alpert’s newly purchased Malibu spread.
Still, Alpert struggled with the trumpet. “It was horrible, horrible,” says Hall. “At the time his studio was next to our kitchen. I’d be in there doing the dishes, and I’d listen to him through the wall as he was practicing. He could get out a few notes, but he couldn’t play a melody. I’d just break down crying.”
Alpert had begun therapy. “Nothing was more important to me than finding my path, finding why I’m here: ‘What’s my mission in life?’ It was not just to be a celebrity or a guy who sold a lot of records. I did that, and it was nice, but it wasn’t going to be my salvation. I was looking for my reason for being. I was willing to throw my horn into the ocean if that’s what it took to find out. It was a long and winding road. It took years before I felt like I used to feel.”
Through it all Alpert signed and produced performers at A&M. Slowly he regained his mastery of the trumpet, but it was 1979 before he had another hit of his own, the funk-influenced “Rise,” one of the disco era’s most sensual dance numbers. In 1987, he was back in the Top 10 with “Diamonds,” which featured his characteristically seductive trumpet work and Janet Jackson on vocals. Meanwhile, thanks to such acts as Supertramp, the Police, Peter Frampton, Bryan Adams, and the Go-Go’s, A&M was thriving. America’s most innovative label, it had averaged seven gold records and four platinum albums a year for three decades. It was the largest independent record company in the world.
Yet by the late 1980s, Alpert and Moss sensed the business was changing. Not only were new technologies imminent, but the partners could see that in the years ahead it was going to be difficult to run a record company on instinct and a handshake. In 1990, they sold their baby to PolyGram for $500 million.
“Do I miss it?” Alpert asks. “Not for a second. It’s a different business now. It’s run by lawyers and driven by the bottom line.”
The three-story stucco building that houses the Herb Alpert Foundation would be indistinguishable from its neighbors on Santa Monica’s 6th Street were it not for the sculptures poking above the walls of its several outdoor patios. Tall and graceful, the pieces signal that this is a place dedicated to art. The interiors, which are hung with a score of Alpert’s paintings and include a recording studio, further emphasize the point. In the years since Alpert sold A&M, his life has focused on the intersection between his own creativity and the ability that his financial wherewithal gives him to inspire it in others.
One of his favorite spots is the penthouse. After a meeting with foundation president Rona Sebastian, he settles into a chair and recalls how the sale of A&M Records enabled him to pursue both his artistic and philanthropic instincts. He says his new wealth set him free. His friends concur. “It allowed him to be the man he always wanted to be,” says Moss. Adler agrees. “Money hasn’t changed him. It has just enabled him to do the things he loves: paint, sculpt, play music, and run his philanthropy.”
Alpert’s interest in the visual arts had been whetted during the early years of the Tijuana Brass. “Right after I did The Lonely Bull and got a little bit of gelt,” he says, “I bought a Rufino Tamayo at a gallery.” He fell hard for the Mexican master. From then on, wherever the Tijuana Brass toured, Alpert spent his days off in museums. His reaction to Michelangelo’s ceiling at the Sistine Chapel was pure jazz: “Holy shit, this guy is on another planet.” His response to the sculptures of Henry Moore was an overwhelming desire to run up and hug them.
Soon enough, Alpert had made the leap from enthusiast to practitioner. “I think I had an advantage,” he says, “in that I never really studied art. Because I started as a novice, there were infinite possibilities. There weren’t any rules.” This is not to say that Alpert didn’t learn technique, both at the easel and when he took up sculpture. “The Chinese have a saying: ‘Before spontaneity comes discipline,’ ” he says. “In the same way that I learned chords and notes before I could play the trumpet, I learned by trial and error what I could do as an artist.”
Alpert’s attitude toward philanthropy is much the same—reactive and instinctive. After reading a New York Times article last year that said the Harlem School of the Arts was going broke, he picked up the phone. He told Rona Sebastian, “Let’s find a way to fix this.” Says Sebastian, “Herb is intuitive in his giving. He will respond to a situation he finds intolerable.” After she determined that the school could be saved, Alpert wrote a check for $500,000 and challenged other donors to match it. They did, and bankruptcy was averted.
This year the New Roads School in Santa Monica has begun construction on the Herb Alpert Educational Village. Scheduled for completion in 2012, the $10 million-plus project will house middle and high school students and include a 350-seat auditorium. Even more recently Alpert scored a triumph for jazz in Southern California by arranging the move of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance from its longtime home in New Orleans to UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Starting next year students will be able to earn master’s degrees on the Westwood campus from a faculty that will boast such guest lecturers as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
At the same time Alpert’s foundation is widening its range of interests, donating $3.1 million to Modest Needs, a New York-based group that provides temporary assistance to responsible people who’ve fallen on hard times. The foundation also has given $2.2 million to Adler and his wife, Page, to help start the Painted Turtle, a Southern California outpost of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camps for terminally ill children. Every year Alpert personally puts a handful of worthy students through college. They have included an old friend’s son and a young man from Africa who is now a prominent politician in Sierra Leone.
As diverse as Alpert’s charitable interests have become, they spring from the same place. “Herb was a shy kid who at age eight picked up a trumpet and found his voice,” says Sebastian. “He’s now trying to help others find theirs.”
On a crisp winter evening Herb Alpert and Lani Hall take the stage at Vibrato, the Bel-Air jazz supper club he has operated for eight years. The room, with its cozy wooden interiors, perfect sight lines from every seat, and state-of-the-art acoustics, has drawn performers ranging from Toots Thielemans and Dave Brubeck to Bobby Hutcherson and Chuck Mangione. Which is exactly what Alpert had in mind when he started it. “There are so many great musicians in L.A.,” he says. “I run the place so they’ll have somewhere to play.” This evening Alpert, his wife, and their backup trio will burn through a set that includes several of the Tijuana Brass’s greatest hits, a medley of Brazilian pieces, and numbers from I Feel You.
In black slacks and blazer over a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the late Cuban jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaria, Alpert opens with the Spanish favorite “Bésame Mucho,” carrying the melody on trumpet. Hall beams as he plays. When she sings Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” he steps to the edge of the stage and watches with adoration, pumping his fist as she finishes. The couple isn’t shy about public displays of affection. They hug and kiss freely.
“We love what we do,” Alpert tells the packed house early on. “I love to play the horn. She loves to sing. And we love each other.”
Whereupon Alpert serenades Hall with the Lerner and Loewe classic “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Voice glowing and warm, he makes it plain that this is a marriage in which emotion and art go hand in hand. As the song ends, Alpert picks up his Sonare and plays the first few notes of “This Guy’s in Love with You.”
A couple of days earlier he’d said, “I once read something attributed to Mark Twain in which he advised that you should think of your life in reverse, always asking, ‘What will it be like to look back from 60, from 70, and now in my case from 85, or if I’m lucky, 90?’ Since I read that, I realized that I’d be more disappointed with the things I didn’t do than those I did.”
Contributing writer Steve Oney wrote about the Charles Manson murders in the July 2009 issue.
Photograph by Art Streiber
This feature was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine