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Herb Alpert's Brass Rings

The jazzman who hit it big early helps others chase their dreams with liberal grants.

March 15, 1998|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

More than 30 years after his astonishing career moon-shot with the Tijuana Brass, pop icon Herb Alpert, 62, co-founder of A&M Records (he's the "A"; then-partner Jerry Moss is the "M"), has the creative freedom to do pretty much as he pleases.

After 15 gold and 14 platinum albums, and the sale of A&M to PolyGram in 1990, Alpert is touring and recording the music he wants to play (reviewers describe it as a more reflective, jazz-tinged sound than the bubbly Tijuana Brass), pursuing a side career as an Abstract Expressionist painter strongly influenced by Mexican artists and carving out a niche as a patron of the arts with the Herb Alpert Foundation.

For the past four years, the foundation--which shares its airy, modern Santa Monica space with a painting studio filled with Alpert's brightly colored, oversized canvases, a roof garden devoted to succulents, and a personal recording studio soundproofed with original, decorative wooden tiles, circa 1929, from the Hollywood home of Rudolph Valentino--has sponsored the Herb Alpert Awards, providing $50,000 fellowships to "mid-career" artists in five disciplines: theater, dance, music, visual arts and film/video.

The awards are administered by the California Institute of the Arts, where winning artists serve short residencies as a requirement for the grant (if the artists are unavailable for residency, their award is reduced to $45,000). The new crop of awardees will be announced Saturday.

In an era of arts funding cutbacks and the decimation of the National Endowment for the Arts, calling the $50,000 grants "substantial" is an understatement.

Moreover, the foundation does not dictate how a selected artist can use the award. "It's wide open," Alpert said during a recent conversation at the foundation headquarters.

"We don't have any ground rules," Alpert continued. "The people with really special ingredients are the ones who are trying to do something in just a little bit different way, that we haven't seen or heard before."

In fact, the only strict requirement, said foundation president Kip Cohen, is that application materials arrive on time--a hard concept for some artists to grasp. "They scream and cry and carry on," he noted, but two days late is two days too late. "This place is literally stacked from floor to ceiling with FedEx boxes," he said.

Past winners include the late playwright Reza Abdoh; choreographer David Rousseve; Lisa Kron, who writes and performs both as a solo artist and as a member of the Five Lesbian Brothers; visual artist Carrie Mae Weems; and saxophonist and composer James Carter.

The nationwide search for each year's five fellows begins with the naming of a diverse panel of 50 nominators, 10 in each discipline, selected by foundation program director Irene Borger in consultation with CalArts President Steven Lavine. Each nominator then anonymously recommends three outstanding artists, who are invited to apply (occasionally, one declines the nomination, Cohen said). Then, 15 awards panelists--three in each discipline--arrive in Los Angeles to choose a winner in each category. Alpert plays no role in selecting the artists.

Lavine said the awards developed out of the foundation's previous involvement with the CalArts jazz department and a mutual desire to create an alternative to the individual artists' grants eliminated by the NEA. "Our goals really are the same, to identify innovating artists early enough in their careers that the support can really make a difference," he said.

In past years, awards ceremonies have been held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, at Lincoln Center in New York, and in the backyard of CalArts President Lavine's home in Encino. This year's awards will be presented at the foundation, and in the future, the foundation hopes to utilize the CalArts space being developed as part of downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall, slated to open its doors in 2001.

"It's building in stature, little by little," said Alpert, a native Angeleno who grew up in Boyle Heights. "We don't want to flaunt it, but I'm very proud of it."

Alpert says his own music-industry success was hard to appreciate in the moment: "It was such an amazing blastoff, in 1964, or '65--I felt like I didn't have my seat belt on," he joked. "I was traveling a lot, and a lot of things were happening so quickly that it was hard to experience it all. But I've been blessed; I feel a need to pass it on as best I can, and hopefully, to attract others who have the means to do likewise.

"It scared the hell out of me when the NEA [experienced cutbacks], and the right-wing sort of indicated that the arts were superfluous. To me, the arts are like life itself, it's the thing that gets people in touch with their feelings.

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