Herb Alpert: the BFG Interview

As a new documentary about him comes out, we talk to the famed trumpeter, philanthropist…and painter

In the first shot of Herb Alpert Is…, you see Alpert not doing what you’d expect him to—playing the trumpet—but throwing paint on a canvas. That’s your first clue that the documentary, which premieres on Facebook today, will explore the many facets of the man. There’s a clue in the open-ended title too: Herb Alpert Is… — a musician. An artist. A philanthropist. And more.

 

Director John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary) takes Alpert back to his roots, revisiting his old neighborhood and his days at Keen Records with Sam Cooke, then covering his commercial breakthrough with Latin-jazz group the Tijuana Brass, his co-founding of A&M Records with Jerry Moss, and his post-Brass successes (the Grammy-winning “Rise,” “Fandango”). There are notable names among the interviewees (Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Jam, Sting), but it’s Alpert who commands attention, coming across as a thoughtful man who’s dedicated to his art, humble about his success, and determined to give back, through entities like the Herb Alpert Foundation. He spoke more about the film with Book and Film Globe:

How did the film come to be?

Well, through the years I’ve been approached many times by various directors that wanted to do a documentary, and I had really no interest in it. I thought I didn’t want to spend a good part of my life thinking about the past, because I’m trying to stay in the moment.

I met John Scheinfeld because I saw the documentaries he did on Harry Nilsson and John Coltrane and John Lennon. And I had a good feeling about him. It seemed like he understood my plight. And we started talking about the possibilities of doing a documentary, and I was searching for what his thoughts were on how to approach it, because I just didn’t want another documentary to gum up the works out there.

So I was looking for something special, and it felt like he had the ideas. He was approaching it like a jazz musician, because he wanted to interview me and Lani [Hall, Alpert’s wife] and kind of get a feel from that, and from that develop the plot. So I was intrigued, and I went along with him. And I’m glad, because I’m proud of the documentary. I think it’s really good; I think it can help people. And he obviously dug up some things I didn’t even know I had in the can someplace.

Herb Alpert
Herb Alpert in the golden 60s. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Like what?

When I was struggling with playing the trumpet and I was having a bit of a problem. I think one of the strong features of the documentary is the idea that at one point of my life, I thought I had the American Dream come true. I thought I had the brass ring. I was rich and I was famous, and I was not so happy. So I think that’s something that some people can get some benefit out of.

Yes, you mention that at the film’s start; “I had the American Dream, but I was miserable.” I never knew about that period in your life before.

Most people think, you sell a lot of records, and they see you on TV, and they think, “Ah, he’s really got it made. He’s really doing everything that I would like to be able to do.” And it all comes with some baggage. So I worked my way through it, came out the other end, and I’m better for it. But I think it could be a nice thing for people to recognize.

You say in the film you felt like you were living a lie. Can you expand on that?

Well, “living a lie” was maybe a little too heavy. I never really lived a lie. Maybe I was deceiving myself in some areas, but I wouldn’t call it a lie—that hurts!

But those were your words.

Yeah, I know. I can’t take it back once it’s on film. I was searching. I was searching for the truth, my own truth as, basically, a jazz musician. And jazz is all about expressing yourself in the most honest possible way. And I was always after that as a walking, talking person. So yeah, at some point in my life I was like a vote getter. I wanted people to like me. I was president of all my classes. I was president of my school. I was the guy that was well-liked.

And I came to the realization that maybe I was trying too hard to be liked. I didn’t have to go out of my way to do anything unique to be liked. And when I met Lani, my wife, she spotted it when we got to know each other. She felt like maybe the house I was living in at the time with my first wife was really not something of my own organic choice. It was maybe a little forced. And she saw that I was — I can’t put this into words. She saw through me.

I didn’t have a problem being wrong. I just had a problem that I was not as comfortable with myself as I would’ve liked to have been at that time.

I listened to the Tijuana Brass when I was growing up. But I had never seen all the promotional film, which we’d now called videos, that you did. What was it like looking at all that stuff after all these years?

Well, when I saw the whole thing put together, it was a strange experience for me, because I was kind of reliving those moments, and some of the moments were not as clear in my memory as they were on screen. So I had to sit back, relax and take it in. But I appreciate everything that’s happened to me, and I think the negative things that have happened in my life are the things that turned into a positive.

And I think that’s maybe one of the things that people can take away from it, the idea that I have this need to return the favor that I’ve been given. I’ve been blessed way beyond my dreams. And instead of buying important paintings and sticking them on my wall, I wanted to do something for others. And because of the success I had on the trumpet, I’ve been able to pass it on.

I want to make sure that kids have an opportunity at an early age to explore their creativity, whether it’s music or poetry and dance or painting or sculpting or whatever it happens to be. I think it’s an important ingredient. And you don’t have to be a professional at it if they choose not to, but having that experience gives them a feeling that they could innovate, they can be innovators in whatever they do. So I think it’s a win-win.

Timing seemed to play a big role in your career.

The timing of “The Lonely Bull” (Alpert’s first hit single), which was 1962—I think it’s all about timing. I know I have the goods, I have the songs, I have the record, but if we tried to do that same thing in today’s musical environment, I don’t think we’d have a chance. So I always want to stress that idea, that timing plays a big part in the success of any artist or any business or anything that you can think about doing.

In the film you talk about how busy you were with the Brass in the ’60s, and you were also running A&M Records. I don’t know of any other musicians at the peak of their careers running a business at the same time. How did you handle that? What sort of juggling act was involved?

Well, I’ll tell you what the trick is. Find yourself a really good partner! I’m a right-brain guy. I’m in the right side of my brain most of the time. I’m not a businessman; I never had aspirations of being a businessman. I’m an artist. And my partner Jerry [Moss] is the opposite, but a very sensitive guy, very honest guy. We started A&M on a handshake and ended on a handshake.

So I needed somebody like that. I was totally involved in the broad strokes of A&M Records. The artists, the everyday nuts and bolts, the little incidental things, I was not interested. I was not a guy that sent memos out to everybody and had meetings every day with different parts of our company. It was just no interest of mine, and I was spending my time being creative.

The film shows you working on your artworks. When did you start painting and sculpting; how did that side of your life came about?

Well, I started painting about 50 years ago when we were traveling around with the Brass, just going around to different parts of the world. I used to go into museums and gravitate towards the modern art section, and I got inspired. I saw a black painting, a solid black painting, with one purple dot in it, and I remember looking at it, thinking, “Really? Why is that hanging here?”

And then in other museums I’d see—it might’ve been the same artist, I never really did get to know who the artist was. But there’d be a white painting with a black dot, and I thought, “Let me try some of this. I think I can do this.” Anyways, I grabbed some paints, I returned home, and I started fooling around with acrylic paint. And I was having a good time doing it, so I kept that up, and I kept doing it for my own pleasure. And a gallery dealer happened to see my work, and he said, “Let’s show it.” So I agreed to that, and bang! It started taking off.

And then about 10 years after that, I started sculpting, and had a good time doing that and still do. And that started happening too. I’ve got nine huge sculptures at the Field Museum in Chicago and nine big pieces at the Wildlife Museum at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’ve had shows all over the place, and I feel very lucky that I’m able to wake up in the morning and be passionate about what I want and what I’m going to be doing the rest of the day.

The reason that art is so beautiful, is that it gets you in the moment of your life, the exact moment of your life. So I think that’s why it’s so engaging.

What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

Well—I might sound a little too humble, but I’m doing what I like to do. This is what I like to do. I’m married to an angel. I have a really beautiful life, and I know I’m helping a lot of people with the ideas we have through the Herb Alpert Foundation. I can’t say I’m missing anything. I always hope that people can wake up in the morning and feel impassioned about what they’re going to be doing the rest of their day, although in today’s environment, it’s really tough.

I know one thing you’ve been missing; playing live. You’ll tour after all this is over, won’t you?

Well, we had to postpone some of our concerts. We were going through Canada right before this happened, and then on the East Coast we had a big tour, and then we were going to London, playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club, and I was looking forward to all that. And I look forward to playing. Not just for everyone saying, “Wow, isn’t he wonderful.” I don’t need that anymore. I just like the feeling of playing with live musicians and being spontaneous. That’s what’s really fun as a musician.

Herb Alpert
Herb Alpert, still blowin’. (credit: Dewey Nicks).

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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