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This week, Herb Alpert is in Hollywood’s Capitol Studios with an orchestra, cutting his first Christmas album in 48 years. But it’s really Christmas in August for the school where his foundation has just promised $10.1 million — Los Angeles City College, which says it will be able to provide free tuition as well as private lessons to all its music majors for years to come as a result of the Herb Alpert Foundation’s gift.
LACC is not one of Southern California’s “glamor schools” when it comes to star gift-giving, but the trumpeter is hoping to start a “tag, you’re it” chain reaction among his fellow philanthropists, retraining some of their financial attention on the community college system.
“Some kids are in situations where it’s a bit of a struggle just to get their mojo working,” says Alpert. “I was just thinking about how expensive it is for kids to go to UCLA or ‘SC or one of the major colleges, and I love the idea that we can open the door to help students who are financially challenged to study at LACC, which is a beautiful college. I mean, it’s a gem. If you haven’t been there lately, the campus is alive and kicking, and there are a lot of great teachers and a lot of great energy there.”
Alpert’s donation sets a record, or comes close, in several regards. The $10.1 million he has promised more than quintuples the previous high-water mark for a gift to an arts-related program in California’s community college system, set last year when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave $2 million to LACC’s cinema department. It’s also the most anyone has ever given to a community college in Southern California for any purpose, and the second-highest amount ever handed over to any two-year school in the entire state, according to Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation.
“I think once this gift is announced, we’re going to see an even greater influx of talented kids coming in from around the city,” says Schwartz. LACC currently has about 175 students majoring in music, but the level of funding — with an endowment set at about $400,000 a year in perpetuity — is designed to accommodate an expected 250 music majors getting a free education at the school. Also benefiting in some way will be the rest of the 2,000 students per semester who enroll in at least one LACC music class.
How rare is this kind of gift? “I’ll give you this statistic,” says Schwartz. “Last year in the United States, there was approximately 40 billion dollars given to higher education in gifts, and of that, less than 2 percent was given to community colleges. Juxtaposed with that is the fact that in the United States, about 80 percent of the workforce has been educated at a community college. Again, of that 40 billion, about a third of that number went to about 20 schools, so it’s very concentrated.”
John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Charlie Mingus and Chet Baker are among the past students at the school who could have benefited from this largess. Schwartz likes to point out that LACC — which has offered music courses since opening in 1929 — was the first college in the country to offer a jazz major, starting in the 1940s.
Alpert never attended LACC himself, but his brother, David, did. When he considers the roots of his interest in funding music education, he inevitably thinks back well beyond college days.
“When I was 8 years old in my grammar school here at Melrose Elementary, there was a music appreciation class,” Alpert says. “And luckily for me there was a table filled with instruments, and I happened to pick up the trumpet. And when I finally made a sound out of it — because I thought you just blow hot air into the horn — it was talking for me. I was super shy; I was an introvert, and this horn was speaking for me. … I like the idea of world music — that kids can experience their own creativity and appreciate their own uniqueness. And if they can do that, then hopefully they’ll appreciate the uniqueness in others, which is a win-win, because I think we’re in kind of a bind today with the world situation.”
Some of the younger students who’ll benefit from Alpert’s generosity may be surprised to learn that their benefactor is bigger than Taylor Swift — at least according to one ranking: Alpert currently sits at No. 7 on the list of the top Billboard 200 album artists of all time, just ahead of Swift and just behind Mariah Carey. Twenty-five of the albums that put him on that list are being reissued on CD in September, concurrent with the release of a brand-new album, Human Nature, which features a cover of the Michael Jackson hit of that name as its title track.
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