Harry Colomby, a gifted teacher of English and Social Studies, taught at high schools in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, and died aged 92 on 25 December from multiple causes at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He was also Thelonious Monk’s manager for 14 years.
An avid jazz fan from his teenage years, Colomby was particularly attracted to Monk even before he became a major figure in jazz. At Far Rockaway High School in Queens, in 1955, Colomby began to organise Friday night jazz concerts for his students, and stopped off at the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village to check out that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers had remembered they were due to perform at his school in a few days’ time. While he was waiting he spotted Monk (they had met once before) and fell into conversation.
As he retailed subsequently, Monk said: “Harry, I remember you. Say you got your car here? You can drive me uptown.” Before they left, Monk asked him: “Do you want to be my manager?” Colomby recalled: “I totally identified with him. I knew where he was at. No job, no nothing, no police card. I had no illusion about how much money there is in jazz. But I realized that Monk was much more than a jazz musician. He was potentially a symbol of strength, purity, you know, beyond music, beyond jazz.”
So began a relationship and friendship that brought Monk to a national (and international) audience, in large part because of Colomby’s managerial talents but also because Monk trusted him implicitly. Although he was not prepared to abandon teaching, Colomby needed to supplement his income, and secured a week’s booking for Monk at the Comedy Theatre in Baltimore. Monk was paid $300, and immediately gave Colomby $60.
The new partnership was not without its problems: Monk was increasingly erratic in his behaviour and often came late to gigs and recording sessions – or missed them entirely – and once damaged Colomby’s car.
Not the least of Colomby’s achievements was getting Monk’s cabaret licence reinstated in 1955. Four years earlier he had been convicted of possessing narcotics after refusing to betray his friend Bud Powell. Colomby led an appeal to the State Liquor Authority (SLA) arguing that Monk was “a drug-free, law-abiding citizen, whose productivity and growing popularity as a recording artist demonstrates his standing as a respectable working musician”.
Colomby’s next move was to secure an engagement for Thelonious at the Five Spot Café (also in Greenwich Village). He said: “I wanted to find a place that was small. I once drove past this place in the Village and there was a bar and I heard music. A place where poets hung out.” With Monk’s cabaret licence reinstated, the Five Spot engagement marked the start of his increasingly popular residency – with John Coltrane on tenor.
Colomby’s long relationship with Monk was revealed in the documentary (directed by Charlotte Zwerin and produced by Clint Eastwood) Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser (1968). After Monk was signed up by the Riverside label, Colomby suspected that he was not receiving the proper royalties for his recordings, and persuaded producer Orrin Keepnews to increase his advances and royalties. When Monk left Riverside in 1962, Colomby helped him to land a lucrative contract with Columbia and to become one of the only five jazz musicians to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
Born on 20 August 1929 in Berlin, Colomby fled with his parents and brother Jules to New York City in 1939 to escape Nazi persecution. They joined other family members who had emigrated to the United States, changing their surname from Golombek to Colomby. Harry’s father, Saul, founded a watch-making company in Manhattan, and his mother, Elsie (Ries) Colomby, worked there. Jules became a jazz trumpeter and another brother, Bobby, was a founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears. After his graduation from Columbia University in 1950 with a degree in English, Harry embarked on his teaching career. Bobby Colomby relates that Harry had learned English by memorising a dictionary.
Although Monk was Colomby’s first client, he later managed comedian John Byner, actor Michael Keaton and pianist and singer Mose Allison. In a long and productive career he produced 13 film or TV projects. He is survived by his wife, Lee, son Scott (an actor) and younger brother Bobby.
Keaton, Colomby’s client for 25 years, reflected: “I was probably the only stand-up whose manager was funnier than he was.” One of his former students remembered: “Harry was this quintessentially cool guy, always dressed well. A bunch of us fell in love with the guy. And he just started talking about jazz. It was far-out stuff.”