Growing up on a farm in Missouri in the 1930s and ’40s, Arlen Asher was able to tune in to only two radio stations – both based across state lines in Iowa.
But both stations had frequent jazz shows, and played greats like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, and Asher “stumbled” upon his love for the musical genre – a love that would continue for more than seven decades.
He was given an old, metal clarinet by his mother as a pre-teen and later learned other woodwind instruments like saxophone and flute. Before settling in Albuquerque in 1958, he played jazz through college and in the U.S. Army Band after being drafted for the Korean War. Today, at 88, the retired music teacher doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
“I want to continue playing as long as I’m able to stand up,” Asher told the Journal.
Asher is one of six honorees for the Platinum Music Awards’ first award show tonight at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The awards, which honor diverse New Mexican “music legends” that were nominated and selected earlier this year, are an expansion of the New Mexico Music Commission’s former Platinum Achievement Awards.
This year’s five musician honorees also include the genre-mixing Alberto Nelson “Al Hurricane” Sanchez, country duo Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Albuquerque Youth Symphony’s Dale Kempter and Native American musician Fernando Cellicion.
Previously, the annual award was given to only one person and there was no ceremony. David Schwartz, director of the Platinum Music Awards and head of the New Mexico Music Commission Foundation, said he wanted to create something bigger to show that the state’s musical talent is just as great as its other fine arts.
“New Mexico is a state of the arts,” said Schwartz. “But it’s usually visual art that gets all of the attention. We want to add emphasis to musical arts and people who are truly incredible artists.”
After living and playing in Albuquerque for a couple of years, Asher said he was tempted to move to Los Angeles to pursue music. One reason he changed his mind, he said, was that he was able to perform with some of the country’s greatest jazz players without leaving New Mexico. “I threw away any chance to hit the so-called ‘big time’ – and it is so-called – because the musicians here are as good as any place,” he said.
The ceremony is modeled after the Kennedy Center Honors and honorees will not be asked to speak or perform. Instead, the show will include tribute performances of music and dance. The show will donate proceeds to two organizations: the New Mexico Music Commission to provide music education for students; and Solace, a local resource organization for sexual abuse victims.
In addition to the awards for the five musicians, the ceremony will distribute the first Lee Berk Award, named after a former president of the Berklee College of Music and current trustee of the New Mexico School of the Arts. This award honors a non-musician who has still had a great influence on the state’s musical landscape.
This year’s recipient, Catherine Oppenheimer, moved to Santa Fe from New York City in the 1990s and cofounded New Mexico’s National Dance Institute. More than a decade later, the former New York City Ballet dancer also helped found the School for the Arts.
Oppenheimer was surprised by her nomination, but said her work with the two organizations is a “group effort” that she could not have done alone. “The award really extends out to people in the field who are working day in and day out with kids,” she said. “It was nice to be recognized.”
This year’s Platinum Award recipients were chosen from about 30 potential artists, said Schwartz. Acts scheduled to perform include former Creed producer John Kurzweg, Joe West and the Santa Fe Revue, the NDI Dancers and Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove, joined by the Impulse Groove Foundation.