Advocating Art

Musician and philanthropist Herb Alpert is more inspired by new art than ever, which is why he's giving $75,000 each to five risk-taking artists in the middle of what he hopes will be long careers.

Left to right: Robert O'Hara, Courtney Bryan, Michael Rakowitz, Lani Hall Alpert, Herb Alpert, Okwui Okpokwasili and Arthur Jafa
Left to right: Robert O’Hara, Courtney Bryan, Michael Rakowitz, Lani Hall Alpert, Herb Alpert, Okwui Okpokwasili and Arthur Jafa

Herb Alpert is obsessed with the mystery of art. What is it about a song or a painting that triggers goosebumps when we hear or see it?

The 83-year old jazz musician, painter, former record industry executive and philanthropist has tried to define that “it” factor for himself. What was it about his friend Dizzy Gillespie’s music, for instance, that touched him so deeply?

“I’ve met some of the great artists of our time, and I can’t tell you why exactly I like them,” Alpert said in an interview last Friday at his foundation’s Santa Monica offices. “I like their sound. Okay, now what? I like where they put the notes. Uh-huh. Now what? I’ve come as close as I think I’ll be able to come with the answer to that which is my own personal answer: To me, all the arts are all about a feeling. There’s a certain feeling that certain artists can give you that just resonates.”

That feeling was palpable, vibrating energetically in a room packed with artists from a variety of disciplines an hour later and a few floors up at a luncheon reception for the 2018 recipients of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts.

The prize, which is awarded annually to five “risk-taking mid-career artists working in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theatre and the visual arts,” is administered by the California Institute of the Arts and provides each recipient with an unrestricted award of $75,000.

In addition to his success as a jazz trumpeter and frontman of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Alpert founded and eventually sold the wildly successful record label A&M; Records (the “A” of which stands for Alpert). “I think if you get this ticket to life,” he said, “you should spend some of your time trying to better others.”

This year’s recipients of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, announced last Thursday, are multidisciplinary artist, choreographer, actor and writer Okwui Okpokwasili; artist, filmmaker and theorist Arthur Jafa; composer and pianist Courtney Bryan; playwright and director Robert O’Hara; and multidisciplinary artist Michael Rakowitz.

Each recipient was nominated anonymously and asked to submit extensive materials in support of their work. For each category a panel of three, the members of which change every year, evaluated top nominees and chose a winner. Those panelists, several past Alpert Award recipients themselves, were on hand Friday to present the awards.

The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts is special to its namesake because it gives him the chance to support the sort of artists he admires most. 

“I always like the artists that are a little off the wall, you know, the ones that would take a left turn instead of going where everyone else was going. Mid-career artists usually have that. These are passionate artists that are not chasing the money trail. They’re absolutely committed, they’re honest, they’re authentic, and that appeals to me. And they need some help, especially now.”

Through the Herb Alpert Foundation, Alpert and his wife, singer Lani Hall, have given millions to support arts education in Alpert’s hometown of Los Angeles and beyond. The schools of music at both the University of California Los Angeles and California Institute of the Arts bear his name. In 2016, the Herb Alpert Foundation provided a $10.1 million gift to the Los Angeles City College Foundation, the largest ever given to a community college in Southern California.

“It really started when I was eight years old in my grammar school here in Los Angeles,” Alpert explained. “There was a music appreciation class and there was a table filled with various instruments. I happened to pick up the trumpet. I was a mute as a kid, and this horn was saying the things I couldn’t get out of my mouth. So it’s become a real close friend of mine through the years, and it’s taken me to some fantastic places. I feel like all kids should be able to have that opportunity at an early age to rub elbows with something creative. Then, they start hopefully feeling good about themselves because it’s fun once you get cookin’ on it.”

Okpokwasili was the first to receive the award Friday. As dance panelists Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director for the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, and Yoko Shioya, the artistic director of the Japan Society in New York, introduced Okpokwasili, emotions ran high. They noted her “luminous stage presence” and total dedication to her craft. They spoke passionately about the way her work moved them personally, about how her bold, committed, risk-taking art deserved recognition and support.

By the time Okpokwasili stood up to accept her award, tears flowed freely down her face. She had planned to perform a song in lieu of an acceptance speech. But her emotions had caught her off guard. Still, she cued the music, opened her mouth and sang boldly through her tears, her voice quivering but strong.

“They say there was a time when love was blind, I say that time, there never was,” she sang, almost chant-like in her delivery. “That who are they, they are the war, to the victor go the spoils. And those lying lines of history, ‘cause it was always beautiful unlike the terrible now, but I say if then was as they say it was, how can now go so astray?”

A few feet away from Okpokwasili, Alpert and Hall sat close together, perched on a stairwell. They squeezed each other’s hands and soaked up the singer’s message.

Alpert is terribly concerned for America right now. It’s a topic he brought up repeatedly earlier that morning during the interview. “It’s a real troubling time,” he said. “These guys in politics these days are on the wrong track as far as I’m concerned. They don’t understand the arts. They don’t get it. And I just don’t like the energy.”

And so here, at his foundation, he counters that vibe with good energy. “It’s a good feeling,” he said about giving back to support the arts. That feeling –– that mysterious feeling that comes from art –– is one Alpert values and wants to spread. And on Friday, it was one you could feel in the room and see on Alpert’s face as Okpokwasili sang.

Keep reading: ‘The California Field Atlas’ looks at the state’s natural beauty from every angle — and its popularity is soaring. 

L.A.-based pianist turned writer Catherine Womack covers classical music and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, Alta Journal, and more.
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