A&M Records Co-Founder Herb Alpert Marks 25 Years of Funding Artists When D.C. Won't: 'Politicians Don't Get It'

Lani Hall Alpert, Ravi Rajan, Herb Alpert and Rona Sebastian
Francesco Da Vinci

From left: Lani Hall Alpert, Ravi Rajan, Alpert and Rona Sebastian.

The Tijuana Brass man launched the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts with royalties and proceeds from the sale of A&M to PolyGram.

Twenty-five years after ­legendary jazz trumpeter -- and A&M Records co-founder -- Herb Alpert established his Herb Alpert Award in the Arts (HAAIA) in response to cutbacks in government funding for the arts, the situation hasn't changed. "The politicians don't get it," says Alpert, 84, from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. "The heart and soul of a country is shaped by its artists."

Alpert recognizes this annually with HAAIA, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in New York on May 13. Each year, the Herb Alpert Foundation offers a $75,000 prize (it previously was $50,000) to boundary-pushing midcareer artists, one each in the categories of dance, film and video, music, theater and visual arts. Several of the soon-to-be 125 recipients over the past quarter century have gone on to win MacArthur "genius" grants, Tonys, Grammys and Pulitzers. "I always gravitated toward those artists that take the road less traveled," says Alpert. "They are professionals, but they can use a little oomph to get them to the next level."

Alpert didn't always know philanthropy would be one of his life's callings. During his 50-year career, the Los Angeles native led The Tijuana Brass, won nine Grammys and, with Jerry Moss, co-founded A&M Records, which the two sold to PolyGram in 1989. But he remains humble: "We started out very inconspicuously in my garage," he says of his early days. Using the funds from album royalties and the A&M sale, he established the foundation to support arts education, inspired by his decision to pick up a trumpet in his own school's music class.

In the early 1990s, former arts journalist Irene Borger was asked to lead HAAIA. "I've really watched a couple of generations of artists grow up," says Borger. Playwright Lisa Kron, for example, won a HAAIA in 1997 and a Tony in 2018 for the Broadway musical Fun Home, based on the memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

Many recipients of the award -- including pianist Vijay Iyer and trombonist George Lewis -- will be panelists at the HAAIA ceremony in May, which will take place at a midtown Manhattan space that formerly housed Annie Leibovitz's photography studio. In addition to choosing the winners from a pool of 50 contenders nominated by industry folk including critics, artistic directors, academics and producers at nonprofits, panelists lead panels at the awards ceremony itself. (Past music panelists have included composer John Adams and neoclassical act Kronos Quartet.)

"The enthusiasm for supporting artists is amazing, and it's very painful to have to give one prize," says Borger.

Alpert removes himself from both the process of selecting winners and the logistics of running HAAIA so there's "no corruption," but his discerning taste and generous spirit permeate the awards nonetheless. "The artists that we gravitate toward," he says, "have that certain something."

This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.