(National Medal of) Art Talk with Herb Alpert
Music is powerful and something that resonates in the soul. It doesn't resonate in the ears. It resonates in the body, and when people get it, they get it….” --- Herb Alpert
You may know Herb Alpert as a Grammy award-winning trumpeter and founder of Tijuana Brass. You may also know him as the co-founder---with Jerry Moss---of the hit-making A&M Records. But did you know that Alpert is also an accomplished visual artist and sculptor? And---as of today---he is one of 12 recipients of the 2012 National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government. (Read more about the 2012 National Medal of Arts recipients and how to watch today's award ceremony in our News Room.)
We spoke with the multi-hyphenate musician by phone about falling in love with the trumpet while still in single digits, the importance of arts education, how he feels about his Grammy awards, and the importance of finding one's voice.
NEA: The first thing I want to ask you was about what you remember as your earliest engagement or experience of the arts.
HERB ALPERT: Well, I had a real pivotal moment when I was eight years old in my elementary school here in Los Angeles. They fortunately had a music appreciation class, and there was a table filled with various instruments and I was, you know, interested in the look of the trumpet. I picked it up and tried to make a sound, and couldn't really get much out of it, 'cause I thought you just blow hot air into it, and that didn't work…. It was one of those good experiences for me 'cause it obviously, it changed my life. I had that experience and that's why I'm so excited about trying to be sure that arts and music are a core subject in educational systems for all kids.
NEA: How did you get from that moment that you picked up the horn as an eight year old to becoming a professional musician?
ALPERT: Well, that's a long and winding road…. I studied with some really good teachers, and it took a while before I was actually having fun playing the trumpet. I was very shy as a kid, and through making this noise, even though it wasn't really musical to start with, it was speaking for me. So it was actually my voice, and I stuck with it. And in high school, we had a little group together and had some success. There was a television show in the mid-early-'50s called High Talent Battle, so we were on that show, and we won, like, eight weeks in a row, and from that we just got some visibility and notoriety and we started playing weddings and parties. And I have good relative pitch so if I [heard] a song on the radio, a pop song, I was able to just play it. So I had a huge repertoire even though I didn't really study [popular] music formally.
Prior to that I was pretty much a classically trained musician, and I was playing in this orchestra and at one moment I found myself really intrigued with the sound of an orchestra… We were playing something by Ravel---Ravel had orchestrated this Pictures at an Exhibition by [Modest] Mussorgsky---and I was intrigued. I was leaning forward in my chair listening to this, it had this kind of stereo effect… and I was thinking “Wow, that's beautiful,” and I forgot to come in. I forgot to come in on my part so I was thinking from that point, that, “Gee, you know, maybe it's not my thing to play other people's music. I think I'd like to try to play my own.” And that's what intrigued Louis Armstrong and Harry James, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown. I started listening to some improvisational music that really resonated with me.
NEA: You mentioned that you think that arts education is very important. Can you say a little bit more about that?
ALPERT: I just think it's a real important ingredient for all kids to have. I mean, I think there's a myth that not everyone is creative, but I think it's a matter of learning. It's like learning… the English language, and well, you spend time doing it. And it doesn't mean kids need to be a professional, but I think by working in the arts---whether it's music, dance, poetry, wanting to be an actor---the beauty of it is, for me, that you get to be in the moment of your life when you're doing it. And that ingredient, I think, spills over into the academics. If kids have that experience and try to find their own uniqueness, because I think there's one thing that all really good artists have in common, is they have their own voice. And I found that out when I went from, you know, classical music to play jazz. I was listening and trying to play, and I could play a little bit like Louis Armstrong. I had a little Miles Davis in me. But then it dawned on me. I said, "Who would wanna hear that?" If they want to hear that sound, go to the original artist, so I was searching for my sound. That's what I was on the pursuit of---one voice.
NEA: Can you say a little bit more about that? I'm curious as to how you came to your signature sound with Tijuana Brass and also how you came to form that first group.
ALPERT: Well, the sound happened little by little, because, like I said, I was searching for something that was, you know, Herb Alpert. I was looking for my voice. And when I was drafted in the Army, they sent me to band school in Fort Knox, Kentucky, for eight weeks, and at that time I was kind of, you know, here in Los Angeles, a local trumpet player with a good reputation. I was well-respected. So I got to band school and there were all trumpet players from around the country that I think were all better than me in one way or another. So that was an eye-opener for me, and that's when it dawned on me, if I'm ever going to pursue being a professional musician, I have to come up with my own way of doing it. And I don't remember exactly the year---it was probably around 1958 or 7, when I heard Les Paul and Mary Ford. Les Paul produced this record called How High the Moon, and he over-dubbed his guitar many times on top of himself, and he came up with this kind of interesting, layered sound. And so in my little studio at home in my garage I had two tape machines, and I went from one tape machine to the other over-dubbing my trumpet, and little by little I hit on this sound that was the genesis of Tijuana Brass.
NEA: So, in effect, when you started the band you were replicating what you had been playing yourself?
ALPERT: Well, you know, oddly enough there was no band. You know, I recorded The Lonely Bull, and it was the first record on A&M Records, and then it wasn't until after Whipped Cream & Other Delights that I recorded with studio musicians of my choice. I then, at that point, formed the Tijuana Brass.
NEA: You mentioned A&M records, and I'd like to hear a little bit about how that came to be.
ALPERT: Well, it came to be just on this one record. I met Jerry Moss who was a promotion man that had a tremendous reputation. He was moving from New York to the West Coast. We became friends and we decided to put out a record. We used to go up to the bull fights in Tijuana in the spring, and I got enamored by the sound of the---not the mariachi band, there was no mariachi band---but there was like a brass band that introduced all the different events at the bull fight. And I liked that feeling so I tried to translate the feeling of the afternoons I spent in Tijuana with a sound, and that was, you know, the start of my thinking about making a record that reflected that sound.
I had some disc jockey friends, and when I played the initial recording that I did for them, they said, "Where’s the hook?" I said, "What do you mean the hook?" They said, "You know, on vocal records, you got to the bridge of the song and there's something that if it's played over and over again you find yourself singing." And obviously with an instrumental it's a little different. So I was thinking, “Well I have to come up with a hook.” And an engineer friend of mine had a sound of 30,000 people screaming, “Olé " at a bull fight, so he let me use the tape. I put that right on the front of "The Lonely Bull," and it, you know, became a big hit record.
And the thing that happened for me was I got several letters from people from around the world cause the record was internationally popular. And I got this one letter from a lady in Germany who thanked me for taking her on a vicarious trip to Tijuana. So I thought, “Wow, that was a visual image for her. From this point on, I'm going to make visual music,” and that was my pursuit. And that was something that, you know, I learned from just a fan writing a letter.
NEA: Did you and Jerry Moss start A&M just to put out "The Lonely Bull?"
ALPERT: We put out "The Lonely Bull" not really knowing where it was going to lead. We were not thinking about starting a huge independent record company. It was just a record, and in those days---that was in 1962---there were a lot of little companies just operating out of their garage or their car, you know. It was a much different situation with radio. You could take a record up to a radio station, and if they happened to like it they would either program it, play it that afternoon, or put it in their meetings and vote on it. And if they played it and if it was a strong station, from that point on you would have record sales, and this is what happened with "The Lonely Bull." The minute I put that hook on it and they started playing it, the phones went crazy. We got calls from distributors from different parts of the world.
NEA: When did you move from producing just your own work at A&M to then producing and distributing other artists? When did you decide to make that leap?
ALPERT: Well, little by little we reinvested the money that we made from "The Lonely Bull," and we did not take the advice of our distributors around the country who said, "Why don't you just take the money and run? Because you got lucky -- maybe you got lucky with this 'Lonely Bull' record because of your proximity to Tijuana," and we didn't take their advice. We just reinvested money little by little. We had a whole stable of artists, which was pretty beautiful, because we found that we were looking at music from the artists' point of view, and I was [working] for a major record company for about a year and a half prior to A&M, and I wasn't crazy about the way I was treated as an artist, so I used that experience with A&M.
NEA: You just said that you really tried to look at things from an artist’s point of view at A&M, and I am interested in some of the specific ways that the fact that you were a working musician informed how you approached the job of being a music executive?
ALPERT: Well, you know, I think being a musician is a different language, for one. And artists need encouragement. I think most artists are insecure. And we were [selecting] artists that were unusual, for the most part. We were not looking for the beat of the week; we were looking for the ones that had something unique to say. Let’s see, like a Cat Stevens, or Joe Cocker, or [The] Police, Janet Jackson, you know. These were artists that we had on our roster that had a unique little way of telling their story. And instead of intimidating [them] by [saying], “You have to… record immediately or else we're going to lose interest in you,” we would encourage them to, you know, take their time, flag themselves the runway, and find their own footing. And I think the artists, for the most part, responded to that.
NEA: Moving back to your own work as a musician, you mentioned earlier some of your influences. Are there any specific performances that you can think of that really informed the way you approach your work, or that have remained inspirational throughout your career?
ALPERT: Well, there's several, I mean, we played at so many places. I guess one that stands out---we played the summer fairs, and we did a show for The Supremes. There were more people than I can count, people everywhere. And we were in the middle of this, I guess it was a parking lot that they converted into a stage and a canopy over the stage. And there were, I don't know how many, there were thousands and thousands of people there. And all of a sudden there was this… unbelievable rainfall, and very few people left. There was this one lady who was holding her baby and had a chair over her head to protect them from the rain---she didn't have an umbrella---and she was like about ten yards away from the stage, and I was thinking, “Wow, I mean that's dedication.” Not dedication, but it really typifies what music can mean to some people, how powerful it is. And I never forgot that image… Music is powerful and something that resonates in the soul; it doesn't resonate in the ears, it resonates in the body, and when people get it, they get it….
NEA: What is your advice to young musicians?
ALPERT: Well I'm asked that question all the time and I have come up with this phrase, and my phrase is, "While you're sleeping, someone else is practicing."
NEA: That’s a good phrase.
ALPERT: It's a good phrase, and, you know, you have to say something that strikes, and that one seems to hit home for everyone I've told that to.
NEA: As a follow-up---what's the best advice that you received when you were just starting out as a young musician?
ALPERT: Good question. I can't honestly say there was one person that gave me advice. There was a Russian trumpet teacher that I had. I guess I was 12 or 13 at the time, and I played this etude for him--- he was the first trumpet player with the San Francisco Symphony---and I finished playing this etude, and he looked at me and there were tears running down his face, and I said, "Jeez." He was touched by what I played, and that was the first time I thought, “Well gee, maybe I do have something to offer.” But I think, for the most part, it was my own awareness that, I think, I'm doing something that's pretty darn good, and it's definitely coming from me, you know, like a deep source within me. I wasn't trying to copy anyone. I wasn't trying to make hit records; I was trying to make good records. I was trying to be a real artist.
NEA: Who are some of the people that you're listening to today?
ALPERT: Well, today I'm listening to my own CD---we have a new CD coming out called Steppin Out, and [I’m listening] to the new mastering and the different things, so I've been spending a lot of time doing that. But if I want to get really inspired? You know, I'll listen to Miles Davis, or I'll listen to Ravel. I love Ravel! I love Daphnis et Chloe, and I get goose bumps every time I hear the fourth, the last movement of Daphnis et Chloe, with the choir, that's, you know, something that gets me every time no matter what. Or Louis Armstrong.
I had the good fortune of playing with Louis Armstrong one time, and I was so amazed [at how] his personality and his horn were in sync…. He was just the way he sounded on the instrument as a person. I found that to be rare---since [then] I've had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest musicians in the world, jazz musicians, and a lot of the times your image of them doesn't quite get there. But with Louis, it was just perfect. I mean, he was a gentleman, he was funny, he was real, and the music that came out of him and the way that he presented it was inspiring because he loved playing the horn… he loved to make music, and it showed. Nothing was put on.
NEA: I've known you as a musician since I was a little kid. But I didn't know until recently that you're also a visual artist. Can you talk about how you started making visual artwork?
ALPERT: Well, I've been painting for over, well it would be 45 years or so, and sculpting for maybe 25. So traveling around the world, you go to museums, and for some reason, I was gravitating toward the modern art section, and I saw these paintings that, you know, intrigued me. I thought, “Wow, I wonder if I could do something like that?” Not thinking I was going to spend a good many years trying. But, you know, I saw in some of the museums there was like a black painting with a purple dot or a green painting with a silver dot or something. And I said, "Well, let me try that." so I grabbed some paint [and] canvas, and I started painting around like a monkey just to see what would happen. I wasn't thinking about doing it for anyone other than myself and my own amazement, and I stuck with it and little by little I started to find my own little voice in it, and the same with sculpting. I've been really lucky.
NEA: How does your voice as a painter and a sculptor compare to your voice as a musician?
ALPERT: I think it comes from the same source. Like we talked about earlier, you have to be honest, you have to find your own voice. Being a musician and working with other musicians, there's a certain energy that comes from the give and take of listening to others play while you're contributing to the whole so I love that aspect of it. But as a painter and sculptor, it's more solo… I've been fortunate to have this voice in my ear every time, when I'm about to work on a canvas, that tells me what to do, and I follow that voice. You know, if it says, “Try red, try black, you get rid of that color," and you know, I'm just very open to change.
NEA: Are there any particular visual artists you admire?
ALPERT: I always liked Henry Moore and Rodin and all the greats…. Before I started sculpting and painting, when we played in Rome and I went to the Sistine Chapel, and I saw what Michelangelo had created with his sculptures and paintings, when I walked out of that place I was just about limp. I said, "Man, there's no use even attempting to be a sculptor or painter." This guy was, you know, a genius on another planet. And then I came to the realization, well, he was doing what he could do, and now let me see what I could do. So, I think that's the hurdle that all artists have to get over. If you could just be satisfied being yourself, creating what is your God-given talent, and being able to appreciate that, I think that's where it starts and ends.
NEA: I just have two more questions. I’m curious where you keep your Grammys. And also, of course, what they mean to you?
ALPERT: There's a couple of Grammys at the Herb Alpert Foundation, but other than that I keep them out of sight. It's not about yesterday for me; it's about what I'm doing today, and what I'd like to be able to do. That feels more comfortable for me.
NEA: At the NEA we use the phrase "Art works” in three ways: to talk about actual works of art; the way that the arts work on people; and also the fact that artists are workers contributing to the economy. How does the phrase “Art works” resonate with you?
ALPERT: I guess it's about what I was talking about before---how important that art experience is for a child, and the beauty of it is [that] art education is just a stepping stone for your own imagination, you know. Once you get the feeling of being an artist on whatever level you're on, it's a way of taking your life to the next level. And the imagination is what we need. That’s what we're kind of losing a bit as a country, this beautiful country of ours that allows us to express ourselves however we choose, for the most part. And creativity is the one ingredient that's going to take us to the next level. I think we need to create and help develop that in people, that creative sense, that feeling of [having] something special to do, something special to offer.