HARLEM — When Herb Alpert was a child, he was given his pick of a gaggle of instruments laying on a table through his elementary school's music program.
He picked the trumpet and the instrument changed his life — and the lives of countless others.
Today, Alpert is a renowned musician and entrepreneur with 40 years in the business who also co-founded A&M Records, one of the most successful independent labels in history. Over the last several years, his foundation has given Harlem School of the Arts $6 million in grants to help the once financially-troubled school stay afloat.
The home of the school was renamed The Herb Alpert Center Monday in honor of the contributions Alpert and his wife, Grammy-winning musician Lani Hall Alpert, have given the school.
"That trumpet has changed my life dramatically," Alpert said. "My hope is that all kids should have that experience."
Harlem School of the Arts, located at 645 St. Nicholas Avenue at West 141st Street, was founded in 1947 by international Opera singer Dorothy Maynor. It trains children — including 2,700 New York City elementary school students — in music, dance, theater, visual arts and musical theater.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped to arrange a new board and a $1 million gift from multiple donors helped to reopen the school. Alpert recently gave the school a $5 million gift that helped to eliminate all of its debt and replenish its endowment.
"Today is a landmark moment in our history," said Harlem School of the Arts President and CEO Yvette L. Campbell.
The gift has "secured" the school "for generations," she said.
"Imagine what the world would be like if Herb Alpert never picked up a trumpet," Campbell added.
Bloomberg, presiding over the ceremonies, called Alpert's gift "incredible," saying it will help the school upgrade its facilities.
"None of this would have been possible without Herb's generosity," the mayor said.
Rep. Charles Rangel gave Bloomberg credit for his role in helping to revive the school and said he knew the mayor's support would continue even when he leaves office.
"Even though you are term-limited, your generosity is not term-limited," he said.
Singer and performer N'Kenge, the star of the new Broadway musical "Motown The Musical," said her mom started bringing her to piano classes at the school when she was 3 years old.
"When I came to Harlem School of the Arts I was told to strive to be the best, work hard and dream big," said N'Kenge, before belting out "Defying Gravity" from the musical Wicked. "Harlem School of the Arts has defied gravity."
Monci Ramirez, a social worker, was in the audience with her daughter Leonay Shepherd, 10, who has taken theater, ballet, vocal and jazz at the school. As a single parent who doesn't have a lot of family nearby, Ramirez said the school has been a great help.
Without grants like those that Alpert provided, Ramirez said she wouldn't be able to afford to send her daughter to the school.
Leonay, a fifth-grader, said she doesn't have dance and music classes at her school but she's happy she can get them at Harlem School of the Arts.
"It lets me be free and express who I am," she said.