Herb Alpert's Brass Rings

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.

"One of the reasons I got involved in this is that I had the opportunities, as a child going to school in Los Angeles--they had a music appreciation class; they allowed me to pick up a trumpet and play it. I was given lessons. The opportunities are not there anymore.

"I like to think that we are picking artists who inspire others. I'm not as interested in, if you will, the 'professional' artist, as in how they can touch and inspire people."

Filmmaker Craig Baldwin, 46, a 1997 winner, cringes at the word "career" when it comes to his art, but gratefully acknowledges that his Alpert Award stipend has allowed him to keep at least one current project, a futuristic fantasy about "electro-magnetic paranoia and autonomy," alive.

"[Film] students often immediately get a job in the sleaziest kinds of operations to pay back their student loans," Baldwin said. "They promise that after they pay off their debts, they'll [pursue their art], but they rarely do. The Alpert grant, or grants like it, are like a loophole, a little gap through which to escape the clutches of the nefarious commercial imperatives that drive the film industry.

"I would never have been able to give everything I've got to this project without the grant . . . of course, desperation is still around the corner, but this is a tremendous lift."

Composer Chen Yi, 45, also a 1997 awardee for her work combining ancient Chinese musical traditions with Western instruments, has felt the effects of her award in a more traditional, career-oriented way: Now on the music faculty of the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University, she credits her recent appointment as a tenured professor at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City to winning the award.

"The dean of the conservatory found the announcement of the Alpert Award on the Internet," she said. "A full professor, with tenure--I couldn't imagine it!"

Born in Guangzhou, China, Yi trained as a violinist in the European tradition, but her study was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution, when she was forced to relocate to the countryside to work as a farmer. It was there that she came into contact with Chinese folk music.

In the increasingly open cultural climate of the '80s, Yi returned to formal music study and began developing as a composer. In 1986, she moved to New York, where she earned her doctorate at Columbia University. Among her credits is a three-year stint as composer-in-residence with the Women's Philharmonic in San Francisco.

Yi acknowledged with a laugh that her musical pursuits never brought her into contact with Alpert or the Tijuana Brass. "For 20 years in China, we were not open, we did not know anything about the outside, and when I came here I was in New York in the academic field," she said. "But now, I definitely know about Herb."

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