HERB ALPERT’S SCHOOL OF MUSIC
Describing Herb Alpert as a trumpeter feels inadequate. His albums with the Tijuana Brass sold millions, but he also became a major force in the music industry itself. Now 80, he performs at the One World Theatre on Monday and Tuesday with his wife, original Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 vocalist Lani Hall. Their album Come Fly With Me arrives next week.
Alpert co-founded A&M Records with partner Jerry Moss in 1962, building it into one of the most successful independent labels of all time with a roster that included the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach, Peter Frampton, the Police, and Janet Jackson. Alpert and Moss sold A&M to Polygram in 1989 for a reported $500 million.
In 2007, Alpert endowed $30 million to the newly named UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. His foundation has supported causes ranging from the Harlem School for the Arts to the Yes Men. Somewhere in there, Alpert found time to become an accomplished painter and sculptor. His huge bronze “Spirit Totems” are currently on display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.
When we spoke by phone on Sept. 11, Alpert had just returned from a four-night stand in Tokyo – his first Japanese dates since “Rise” topped the charts in 1979. Despite the jet lag, he held forth with alacrity on a wide range of topics, particularly the connection between music and visual art, and the philosophy he and Moss employed to grow A&M. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Austin Chronicle: Your trumpet-playing is one of the most distinctive sounds in music. I’m interested in the mechanics of how you went about cultivating that. Was that something you went about deliberately?
Herb Alpert: I had a couple of a-has. I studied classical music with some great classical teachers. Yet I heard Miles [Davis], Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and all those guys. I wanted to switch over to “close your eyes and play.” You know, the jazz form. I found myself trying to copy my favorite players. I could play a little bit like Harry James, a little bit like Louis Armstrong. I tried to copy their feeling and I realized, who in the heck wants to hear that? These people have already done it!
So actually I was looking for my own voice. I don’t think I did anything extraordinary to find it. I was just on the hunt to be myself as a musician. Then I heard Les Paul, that record he did with his wife [Mary Ford], “How High the Moon.” He layered his guitar a few times from tape machine to tape machine. I’m not sure how he did it. I tried doing that with the trumpet and I came up with the sound. That was the genesis of the Tijuana Brass sound.
I got more confidence when I had that “Lonely Bull” record, the first record that started A&M in 1962. I received lots of feedback. A lady sent me a beautiful letter from Germany. She said, “Dear Mr. Alpert, thank you for sending me on this vicarious trip to Tijuana.” When it sunk in, I thought, wow, that music was so visual to her that it transported her. I always thought about making visual music.
Right now, at the age of 80, I realize the key to being an artist, whether you’re a painter, sculptor, musician, or dancer, is that you have to find your own voice. Find your own way of doing it. Don’t measure it up to any of the other artists that you happen to like. Just try to be yourself. I think that’s where the sound comes from.
AC: I know you came from a musical family on the east side of Los Angeles. When you were a child listening to music, what was the mix you were hearing?
HA: My dad was from Russia and he played mandolin by ear. So I heard a lot of those little tunes that he could just pick up and play. He didn’t read music. He just had a feeling for certain melodies. He had a record by the Red Army Chorus that was real haunting as well. And I started listening to classical. Of course Harry James was an influence. There was something about the way he communicated. It was sweet. He had a very lovely approach to the instrument that seemed quite different than the other players that I had heard at the time.
AC: When I was a young, your music was a ubiquitous part of pop culture. Before I even knew who you were, I knew your music. Everyone’s parents had your albums. You’d hear your music in the supermarket, you’d hear it on The Dating Game. Did you ever envision your music having that kind of utility?
HA: Oh no, not really. And I had this other experience I thought of as you were talking. I went to this music school, Westlake School of Music, and I was playing in the big swing/jazz band. At that point in my life – this was before I found my own voice – I was playing lead trumpet. I was learning how to play really high and really loud and fast. And I shook the four top teeth and four bottom teeth loose. They didn’t fall out, but they were loose. I said to myself, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” I don’t want to put that type of energy out. I want to just play the trumpet within the range that it was designed for, which is up to C, high C, and then leave it at that. Let those other guys go for the artillery. That is part of my sound as well. I stay within the range of the good part of the sound of the trumpet.
AC: Looking back, what did you and Jerry Moss do differently to create and sustain the success you had at A&M?
HA: I could tell you exactly. I was recording for a major record company prior to A&M for about a year and a half. I didn’t like the way I was being treated. I was treated like a number. When I recorded, it was in this very cold, white on white on white studio. I was listening to a playback of one of my songs and I wanted to hear more bass. I went over to the board and I lifted the bass track up and an engineer slapped my hand and said, “Don’t ever touch it again! We’re a union board,” blah, blah, blah. I thought to myself, “Man, shouldn’t the record industry be centered around the artist?” I filed all that information.
When it came time to start A&M, we didn’t really start out to create this huge, independent record company. We were just releasing a record like a lot of people did in those days. You’d release one record and see what happens. But then when we started growing, I realized that I wanted to make everyone comfortable – the people we hired, the artists. We wanted everything to revolve around the artist. My partner had that same feeling. I don’t have a business background, he did. So he brought that to the party.
We had one thing that happened in 1965. We’d signed Waylon Jennings to a contract. He was a radio disc jockey and a musician. He was in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time. I recorded and produced a couple of tracks with him. One track was “Four Strong Winds.” Chet Atkins heard it and made some overtures to Waylon that when he gets out of his contract, he’d love to talk to him and have him record for RCA.
Anyway, we talked it over. Waylon was all excited because Chet Atkins was the messiah of country music. Waylon had wanted to go a little more country. He had about two, maybe three, years left to go on his contract with us. He told us about the situation with Chet. Jerry and I said, well, we’re going to let you out of the contract so you can go record with Chet Atkins and fulfill your dreams. This was prior to our buying the A&M Studios on La Brea, the old Chaplin Studios, and the office on Sunset.
Jerry signed the release and I looked at him and said, “Man, this guy’s going to be a big artist.” And Jerry said, “Yeah, I know.” I realized at that moment that if we could be that honest and have that kind of integrity with the artists, we’re going to be a big success. I think that was a pivotal moment for A&M.
I loved Waylon. We remained friends. He couldn’t believe we did that. At A&M, we always tried to look at artists from the artist’s point of view. And not looking for the beat of the week. We were looking for artists who had something unique to say. We weren’t that concerned if they didn’t have a monster hit record the first time out. We’d let them flag themselves down the runway and little by little, they did.
Most of the great artists we had were unknown until they started recording for us. Like the Carpenters, for one. For about a year into their recording contract, nothing was happening. I had the feeling from some of the people in my own company of, “Why did you sign these kids? They’re too soft. They don’t sound like what’s on the radio.” But that’s the reason I signed them. When I heard [Karen Carpenter’s] voice, it was like magic to me. Wow, what a sound. What a beautiful voice this girl has. And she didn’t even know she was a singer. She thought she was a drummer.
AC: Do you think you could do something like that now, given the way the music industry is?
HA: No, I don’t think so. I think timing plays a huge part in the success of artists and the timing was right then. The timing would be way off now. It’s a whole different industry. It’s a different way of making music. It’s a different way of presenting music. It’s just another world.
AC: Since you’re the namesake of the UCLA School of Music, I wanted to ask you about music education. How do you think music education needs to evolve to meet the current state of the industry?
HA: For one, I think jazz needs to evolve. We’re kind of stagnant. A lot of the players are just trying to re-create what already has been played. Miles Davis was on top of that, because why would you play bebop when Charlie Parker and Dizzy had already played it? I think there needs to be a renaissance with that. And there needs to be an educational component in the schools to make sure that if things don’t quite work out the way some musicians are hoping, they have something to fall back on.
But I believe in music, you know. I think artists and musicians are magicians. I paint, I sculpt, I make music, and I think one of the fascinating parts of it all is that it’s a mystery. What is that element that makes you really like a particular record or like a particular painting or sculpture? It’s in the nonverbal area. You can’t describe it.
I mean, I played with Louis Armstrong. I loved Louis. I loved his energy and his sincerity, but I couldn’t describe exactly why I liked what he did. I knew some of the great artists of all time. Stan Getz was a dear friend of mine. He picked up the horn and started playing simple scales and you’d say, “Wow, beautiful!” But he was playing something that everyone else plays. So there’s a certain mystery that comes with art that I think is seductive. That’s why people fall in love with certain artists. They get a particular feeling for their sound or their intent.
AC: Tell me about your upcoming exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago.
HA: Next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we’re putting up nine huge totems in bronze. They’re going to be right in front of the Field Museum in Chicago and one large one inside. I’ve been sculpting for 35 years and painting for over 45 and loving it. I’m a right-brained kind of guy. I like to live on that side of my head, so that’s what I do most of the days.
AC: You’ve mentioned that “Night Ride” from your new album had its genesis in a Tito Puente rhythm. Did you ever have a chance to work with him?
HA: No. I met him, but I never worked with him. He was wonderful. He was a groove machine. He instinctively had this beautiful rhythm inside his body that was very infectious to musicians that worked with him.
AC: What attracted you to “Come Fly With Me” and how did you go about rearranging it?
HA: When I hear songs that are familiar to people, I try to do them in a way they haven’t heard before. I was familiar with that song only through Frank Sinatra’s version, which is a classic. The song is written by Jimmy Van Heusen. Sinatra’s version doesn’t tell you where you’re flying. You could be flying any place, which is beautiful. So I decided, let’s fly down to the Caribbean. That’s why I put in the steel drums. The minute those steel drums come in after the first bridge, you get that feeling of being someplace in the Caribbean. I don’t know if that’s an important ingredient, but it was to me.
AC: What’s in the repertoire these days with you and your wife when you’re on tour?
HA: We kind of scramble it up. We’ve got lots of songs that are familiar. I’ll do a little Tijuana Brass medley, of course. Lani does a little Brasil ’66 medley. She’s a world-class singer. She has an amazing, God-given voice. It’s a treat to hear her because she doesn’t sing a note unless she really feels it.
I think the beautiful part of what we do, and we’ve been doing it for the last nine years, is that it’s real tight. It’s really an honest hour and a half to two hours with us, and it’s just various types of music that comes from all different directions. It’s not like the same beat coming at you all the time. It’s very spontaneous.
I have this understanding with our musicians. There’s only a trio behind us, so it’s very transparent. You can’t hide behind anything. But I tell them, “Play whatever you want, wherever you want it.” The form and harmonic structure of what we’re going to play is intact. But within that, they’re free to play, as I am, and they do. Every night is different. So that’s what makes it fun for me to do and it’s fun for our musicians, and I think it’s a lot of fun for the audience to hear. It’s a win-win.