Herb Alpert Blows Horn While Giving: Interview

Herb Alpert and Lani Hall
Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at Cafe Carlyle. Much of Alpert's performance is improvisational. Photographer: Tristan Fuge/C4 Global Communications via Bloomberg

Muted trumpet arpeggios echo through a 5th floor hallway in the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

No need to guess which room Herb Alpert is staying in.

At 76, the legendary front-man for the Tijuana Brass (and co-founder of A&M Records) is touring again, this time with his wife Lani Hall, the former lead singer of “Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66.”

Until Saturday, they’re downstairs at the Cafe Carlyle, a classic New York night club.

Dressed in black sneakers, black pants and a dark green tee shirt, Alpert greeted me at the door to his suite an hour before going onstage.

As we talked, Alpert held on to his trumpet, at various points oiling it or playing phantom notes.

Tarmy: So how different is today from the 1960s?

Alpert: I’m a little older and a little wiser, probably -- I can get more out of the horn for less effort.

And the performances themselves are different: I make sure that they’re informal. We played at Disney Hall with 5,000 people, and the audience felt comfortable enough to yell questions at me off the balcony.

Tijuana Taxi

Tarmy: The Cafe Carlyle seats fewer, around 90!

Alpert: Initially, I was reluctant to even think of playing in small clubs -- I was afraid I’d have all these people yelling out: “Play the Tijuana Taxi!”

Tarmy: Of all the artists you signed as the co-head of A&M records, who has demonstrated the greatest staying power?

Alpert: I always knew Sting would stay big. He’s very smart, very intuitive, and most importantly, he writes a great song. And if you can write a great song you can hang on.

And Quincy Jones -- that’s a career in its own right, too. Cat Stevens was also just a phenomenal artist -- very, very special. But he’s gone on his own journey.

Tarmy: After selling A&M, did you stay involved in business?

Alpert: No, that’s not my strength. I’m a right-brain kind of guy. So I make sure I have good people around me to deal with money, and so far I’ve been lucky.

I’m aware of what I’m invested in, though. My wife and I own nothing that will hurt the environment. We’ve been very adamant about that.

Modest Means

Tarmy: You spend a lot of time giving your money away -- close to $100 million at this point.

Alpert: Lani and I know about every single recipient our foundation awards a grant to. We help choose them, and sometimes we spot an organization that might have the right idea, but might be on the wrong track, and then our foundation steps in to try to help them out.

Tarmy: Any you’re particularly proud of?

Alpert: One that really stands out is right here in New York called “Modest Needs.” It helps people who are falling through the cracks just a little bit: they only need a small amount of help to get back on their feet again, not a sustained subsidization.

Tarmy: You’ve also given a huge amount to arts education.

Alpert: I strongly believe in giving kids creative energy in their formative years. I don’t think that you can have a good education without some form of creative activity. All too often schools take imagination away from kids by de-funding arts education.

Tarmy: You sculpt as well. Does your art come from the same creative impulse as your music?

Alpert: When I walk in a room and see something beautiful, or when I see someone and say, “Wow, what a good-looking girl, or what a good-looking guy,” that’s the element that I try and go for when I’m sculpting: something that makes me feel good when I see it.

I don’t over-think it.

Tarmy: Does your art sell?

Alpert: The larger works go for around $250,000; my last show was around five months ago at the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles.

Happy Day

Tarmy: Your own taste seems to resonate with a pretty broad swath of people.

Alpert: I’m not affecting anything -- I’m just trying to be me. You know, I’m 76 years old now.

All I want to do is play the horn, make some people happy if I can and call it a day.

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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