RR LogoCorey Allen From Dixieland to Nightclub Confidential to Johnny Mandel

Corey Allen Photo OneIt is probably far easier to ask what Corey Allen has not accomplished in his career than to ask what he has accomplished, but then that would be a negative way to approach this brilliant arranger, composer, producer, conductor (orchestras worldwide) and multi-instrumentalist’s career. That said, he also established the curiculumn for Escuela Internacional de Musica Contemporaneá y Artes in the Dominican Republic where he now lives and teaches.  It is a long way from Portland, Maine where he was born and grew up in a family of five and even further removed from the Berklee College of Music where he was first a student and later a member of the faculty.

Corey Allen’s music has appeared in feature films such as Just Cause starring Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne, as well as television programs such as, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Show with Joan Rivers and Eye On Hollywood. In addition he was awarded the LA Drama Critics Circle award for Outstanding Musical Director for his work with the live theater production of Nightclub Confidential.

Talking to us before he headed into a recording session, as the producer, Allen joked that his musical career “pretty well started out of the womb.”

He says, “I can remember my mother gave me my first piano lessons, when I was a kid. She taught me the fundamentals early on. I remember tracing the notes and not being too interested in practising the piano, but tracing the staff and the notes and all of that. I was always interested in the mechanics and the writing of music more than in performing it. I have always felt that the guy who is writing music always had more control than the guy who was playing it. I would rather have that control and have that sense of creation.

My brother played the bass and my sister played the clarinet and they played in high school in the same orchestra.  I remember listening to my sister play the high parts, the melody parts and my brother playing the bass parts and I could play the two parts on the piano. From a very early age, I was interested in how all of that worked.  My earliest memories of family events were of concerts and things like a high school string quartet.

Like every kid, I hated piano lessons and I gave up the formal study of the piano for many years. That is when I learned to play the banjo, the mandolin, the guitar, the trombone, the bass and a few other instruments. I figured if I was going to write for them than I better learn to play them, so I would know what the difficulties were. I studied more on strings than anything else.

I took lessons with Don Nichols who was a banjo player. He had a music degree in music theory and that was his thing, so I learned music theory from him.”

Initially, Corey Allen attended Berklee as an electric bass player who also played double bass, but as he says, “At Berklee I was scared to death of the piano players, because they were all better than me. My major was always composition. I went in hard and early. My principal instrument was bass until I found that you couldn’t get a practice room. You couldn’t get an accoustic piano, because there were too few of them at that time. You had to play piano as a principal instrument. If the piano was your principal instrument, they would allow you to have a piano practice room. They had plenty of electric keyboards.”

Stepping back for a moment to reflect, Corey Allen explains that when he was in high school he was pretty well self-taught on the piano however, his repetoire was primarily Classical music, focusing on Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and similar composers. The only part of his repetoire that lent itself to Jazz was very traditional Jazz or Ragtime music and it was reminiscent in some cases of Tin Pan Alley.  He says prior to attending Berklee his knowledge of Jazz stopped about 1929 and that he was not that familiar with Bebop or Swing music.

Allen picks up the storyline, “I played in a Dixieland band. I was in high school, but the guys in the band were all business men from Portland. One was the District Attorney, one guy owned an oil company and another guy was a real estate guy. They were from different walks of the business life and they would play and not collect money. They made money, but then they would put all of the money into a traveling account and every two or three years they would go on a trip. I was a mascot I think (he laughs). The fellow that I mentioned Don Nichols was one of the banjo players in the band. There were three. When one of the other guys couldn’t do it or he got to old to do it, I took that chair, so I ended up going to Europe and playing banjo three or four times with this band. The first time that I went I was sixteen. It was great. It was absolutely wonderful. These guys were older, they were traveling with their wives and they were very established business people. I couldn’t get into too much trouble if I had wanted to, because they were keeping an eye on me. The District Attorney is always a good connection to have (said jokingly). It was a wonderful way to get into the music business and also it fostered the lifelong love of traveling.  I think the first country we went to was Germany, which was also a dream of mine. I speak German and I went there to polish it and to practice it more than anything else. That was when I was sixteen and then I think we went to France and Switzerland when I was eighteen. There was an English trip in between.”

As for how he got into Jazz, he says, “I literally fell over backwards into Jazz and I am very glad that I did, because at the end of my first semester at Berklee I went to New York and I interviewed at Manhattan School of Music and I think Juilliard and I got their pitch. I decided that I was in the right place. I saw the way American music and contemporary music was going and thank God I was right, because Berklee was giving me better preparation.”

He says one of the things that he likes about Jazz music is the emphassis on spontaneous creativity. He also likes the attention that is paid to and the understanding of the individual notes on a particular scale, as well as the chords. Allen also says he watched the merging of contemporary music with Jazz music and the rhythmic contribution that Jazz made.

In September of 1980 Corey Allen became the youngest faculty member ever appointed at Berklee, having just graduated the previous April. Corey Allen Photo Two

He says, “I was very proud of that and I still am proud of it. I remember having an interview with the provost of the college and he had a stack of resumes. We sat down and after the pleasantries, he reached and he took a resume off the top of the stack and it was mine. He said that should give you an idea of what we think of you around here.  I felt very good and very at ease from that point on.  I had written for everybody and I had arranged for everybody. I was sort of everywhere all of the time.  I was playing banjo for student productions at Boston College or Boston University. I was playing with the MIT wind ensemble and I was doing things with Phil Wilson when he needed a banjo and something more traditional. I was sort of everywhere and anytime that I got a chance to write. I think my first real leg up as a professional was given to me by the head of the piano department at Berklee and his name was Paul Schmeling. He gave me a gig as a musical director for a singer and from that point on it was basically off to the races. I wrote for anybody who needed an arrangement. By the time I had my interview at Berklee as a teacher the faculty already knew who I was.

I taught for five years at Berklee (1980 – 85) and during my time there it introduced me to many of the people with whom I continue to work to this day.  Many of them were my students.”

When it is pointed out to Allen that he now is highly regarded in many countries beyond America’s borders, he replies, “I think it is starting to be that way, but when you are in the thick of it you don’t see it that way. It is strange just going through this and walking through my past to how I landed here.  When I left for Los Angeles, my goal was to be a film composer.  I took film composition courses at Santa Monica with Earle Hagen. That was my goal, but when I got out there I became friends with Johnny Mandel and he sat me down and it was just a nice thing for him to do. We were having lunch and he (Mandel) said to me, I have no idea why you want to do that. I said what do you mean? You are the guy who won Academy Awards, so why are you asking me that question? He said it isn’t what it was when he was writing. He said, ‘When I was doing a lot of film work it was fun, it was exciting, it was musical, it was very interesting and you had a lot of autonomy. You worked with the director and that was it. Now you don’t work with the director as much unless you get to know them.’ If you look at it he was right, (for instance) John Williams will always work with Spielberg. A composer and director pair will tend to work together, because they like one another and they work together well. They have developed shorthand over a lot of different movies, so it makes sense. He (Mandel) said nowadays, unless you have that sort of a relationship with the director you are very likely to be in a conversation where the producer wants one thing, the music supervisor wants something else and the director wants yet something else.  You have to figure it out and come up with something in the middle of all of that.  It isn’t all that fun.

I took his advice and I was married for a long time with Cheryl Bentyne who is with the Manhattan Transfer and we were making records hand over fist for quite some time. I think that we made eleven or twelve of them. Johnny’s (Mandel) advice for many years was to make records. I was having the time of my life and we were making records and we were making money. It was great, but the economy has turned quite bad for the music industry and for the record industry in particular.”

This prompted another question and we asked Corey Allen if he felt the state of the music industry is in a lot worse shape today or if it has always been tough sledding.

“My initial response to you is, it has always been difficult. My career began when the Swing era guys’ careers were winding down. I got a chance to play with them. I played with Slam Stewart (Jazz bass player) and I played with guys who worked with (Benny) Goodman and that era of musician. I did a very short tour with the (Glenn Miller band.  It was with a show called The All Night Strut. Those were contract players and there wasn’t anybody from the era. There were individuals in Boston who had played with Miller. The first big concert that I was involved with as a composer was with the Portland Symphony. I opened for Lionel Hampton. I got a chance to hang out with him both at the rehearsals and at the concerts.  His whole thing was that it was miserable and it was very tough. He was traveling the length and breadth of the United States in what basically was a school bus. He would go without sleeping in a bed for a long time, being cold and having to get out and play his instrument well, because there were fifteen guys behind him who wanted his job.

If you listen to the stories from that generation of players, it was miserable.  It was absolutely miserable and those guys were miserable.  Most of the swing guys that I played with were not nice people. They were the beboppers who were much more drug infused and in my mind you didn’t actually want to be around those guys, because the Swing guys were nasty,” he says.   

Since arranging music plays such an important role in Corey Allen’s career, we asked him to explain for our readers what an arranger does.

“Johnny Mandel explained it very well when he said that as a kid he would listen to the same song  done by various artists, the same piece of music done by various artists, but he liked some and he didn’t like others.  He couldn’t understand why that was the case and then it occurred to him it was how the music was arranged. Think of it as a stage piece. You are talking about the same Shakespeare play, but you like the scenery, the props, the set and the costumes in one production and you hated it in another production.  It is the same piece, but the experience is quite different depending on how it is set. That I think explains arranging very, very well on the surface level. When it becomes a little deeper or when the explanation becomes a little deeper it is about finding the natural ebb and flow of a piece of music and if it is for a singer, complimenting how that singer sings and how that singer feels the music. (It is also) discussing with the singer or horn player (or other musician) where they feel the climax of the melody is and where the climax of the song is and how they want to sell the song. Do they want some kind of a device that heightens the experience like a modulation? Do they want the song to end up higher than when they started it?  I think arranging is really set design and the good ones Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mandel and Vince Mendoza, these are guys that all have that. I suspect they have a feel for it naturally or they studied it and learned it,” says Allen.

Corey Allen relates an event that occurred many years ago and it sums up this talented man.

“I was asked to sit on a panel with JR Robinson and this was for recent Berklee graduates who had moved to Los Angeles and they were looking for advice from people in the industry. JR Robinson was there to discuss being a studio musician. How do you do it? What steps must one take to become a successful studio musician?  Johnny Mandel was there to talk about, basically being a legend (he chuckles). How do you become Johnny Mandel?  There was a guy there from Kurzweil to talk about music manufacturing. There was somebody else who was a film music supervisor. There were all of these people who had met with great success in a particular area. I felt like the bastard at the family reunion (he laughs). Look at who I am sitting next to and they are all doing something within a very narrow framework and  I did not have any sage advice in any of those areas.  I reached in my bag and I pulled out my calendar. I said Monday I played the piano on a recording for the Manhattan Transfer, Tuesday I did a jingle, Thursday in the evening I did a R&B gig, Friday I played somebody’s wedding and Saturday I wrote an arrangement (for another artist). I said I am a general practioner in a room full of specialists.  I do a lot of different things well enough to make a living. This makes me happy. If someone said to me you can do that or you can do one thing for the rest of your life, I would do what I am doing, because it is much more intellectually stimulating and generally it is much more interesting.  There is a sacrifice, because it takes a lot of time, a lot of practice and a lot of sweat to do that, but the benefits are pretty substantial.”

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This interview by Joe Montague  published August 10th,  2015 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved.  All photos courtesy of Corey Allen  and are protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved