Harry Colomby, teacher who aided a jazz great's career, dies at 92

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Harry Colomby, teacher who aided a jazz great's career, dies at 92
An undated family photo shows Harry Colomby in 2015. Colomby, a high school teacher who managed the jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk for 14 years. Colomby died on Dec. 25, 2021, at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 92. The Colomby Family via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Harry Colomby was a schoolteacher with a love of jazz when he stopped by the Cafe Bohemia in New York's Greenwich Village in 1955 to remind drummer Art Blakey that he and his band, the Jazz Messengers, were scheduled to perform in a few days at the school where Colomby taught.

While waiting, Colomby greeted celebrated composer and pianist Thelonious Monk; they had met once before. “Oh, Harry. Yeah, I remember you,” Colomby recalled him saying, as detailed in the liner notes to the live 1965 Monk album “Misterioso.” “Say, you got your car here? You can drive me uptown?”

In the car, Monk asked if Colomby was ready to quit teaching. “So I drove Thelonious to his house at 2:30 in the morning and at 3 a.m., a half-hour later, became his personal manager,” he wrote. “I’m still not sure how it happened.”

Colomby’s younger brother, Bobby, the original drummer with Blood, Sweat & Tears and later a record producer and an executive at several record companies, said in a phone interview that Monk viewed Harry as someone who was “bright, honest and would work hard,” adding, “Harry told him, ‘I can’t promise you you’ll be rich, but you’ll be appreciated as an artist.’”

Colomby died Dec. 25 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 92. His brother confirmed the death.

When Colomby began working with Monk, he was little known beyond the jazz cognoscenti and his unorthodox approach divided critics. He was also rarely heard in New York City because he lacked a cabaret card, which in those days was needed to perform in bars and nightclubs there; he had not had one since 1951, when it was revoked because of a drug arrest. In 1957, Colomby helped Monk get his card back. His subsequent extended engagement at the Five Spot in the East Village was the beginning of his emergence as a jazz star.

For most of the 14 years that he managed Monk from obscurity to renown, Colomby taught English and social studies at high schools in Brooklyn, Queens and Plainview, on Long Island. “I had no illusion about how much money there is in jazz,” Colomby told historian Robin D.G. Kelley for his biography “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” (2009). “But I realized that Monk was more than a jazz musician. He was potentially a symbol. He was symbolic of strength, stick-to-it-iveness, purity, you know, beyond music, beyond jazz.”

Harry Golombek was born on Aug. 20, 1929, in Berlin, and fled with his parents and his brother Jules to New York City in the spring of 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. Family members who had immigrated earlier to the United States changed their surname to Colomby. His father, Saul, who became Fred in the United States, started a watchmaking company in Manhattan. His mother, Elsie (Ries) Colomby, worked there.

After graduating from New York University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in English, Harry began his teaching career.

As a manager, Colomby had only four clients: Monk; singer and pianist Mose Allison; comedian and impressionist John Byner; and actor Michael Keaton.

Byner said that he met Colomby in the early 1960s at a John F. Kennedy impression contest. “He was fantastic,” he said in a phone interview. “He knew everybody.” But they parted in 1986 because Colomby became focused on his business with Keaton.

“He left me for another guy,” Byner said.

Colomby first encountered Keaton, then a stand-up comic, performing at the Comedy Store in Hollywood in the late 1970s.

“What I saw in Michael was something original,” Colomby told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. “I also saw charisma onstage. Something about his look and timing was exquisite.”

Colomby was also the producer or executive producer of starring vehicles for Keaton including the television series “Working Stiffs” (1979) and “Report to Murphy” (1982) and the films “Mr. Mom” (1983), “Johnny Dangerously” (1984) and “One Good Cop” (1991).

In addition to his brother Bobby, Colomby is survived by his wife, Lee, and his son, actor Scott Colomby. His brother Jules, who briefly ran a jazz record company, Signal, died in the 1990s.

Keaton was Colomby’s client for about 25 years, and the two remained friends afterward.

“What we shared was, we saw things in an offbeat way and we’d talk for hours and make each other laugh,” Keaton said in a phone interview. “I was probably the only stand-up whose manager was funnier than he was.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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