Harry Colomby, who made the unusual career transition from high school teacher to talent manager at the invitation of jazz great Thelonious Monk, died Dec. 25 from multiple causes at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 92.
Although Monk was his first client, Colomby’s career expanded to film and television, managing both comedian John Byner and actor Michael Keaton.
He was the producer or executive producer of 13 film or TV projects, several of them Keaton movies, including “Mr. Mom.” The brother of Bobby Colomby, founding member of Blood, Sweat & Tears and, and jazz trumpeter Jules Colomby, Harry also had six screenwriting credits, including the Keaton feature “Johnny Dangerously.”
In an Instagram post, Keaton paid tribute to his business partner. “Unlikeliest of matches, we thought the same, felt the same and laughed at the same things. He was kindhearted, curious, thoughtful and man, was he funny … I loved him and so did all who met him.”
Colomby may have continued life as an educator had the jazz lover not booked Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to perform at one of the New York schools where he taught. The night before the concert, Colomby went to the club where Blakey was playing to make sure he had the address, and it was there that Monk asked if he could give the pianist a ride home.
“Out of nowhere, believing a high school teacher was most likely honest and smart, Monk asked Harry if he would have interest in managing him,” says Bobby Colomby. “He didn’t promise wealth and fame, but he did say that he would make sure that Thelonious would be taken seriously as an artist.”
Now considered a jazz great, the pianist and composer’s career was in limbo at the time with a suspended cabaret license preventing Monk from playing New York City clubs. Colomby appealed to the State Liquor authority, and the license was reinstated in May of 1957. That set the stage for a now-famous residency at The Five Spot that Colomby booked with John Coltrane on board as Monk’s saxophonist.
Colomby was Monk’s personal manager for 14 years, a relationship captured in the 1989 documentary film “Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser,” culled from footage shot in 1967 and 1968. During the time they worked together, Monk signed his 1962 contract with Columbia Records and in 1964 became one of only five jazz musicians to appear on the cover of Time in that magazine’s history.
Working with Byner prompted Colomby to move to Los Angeles, where he wrote and produced projects for his client, including the 1977 TV film “McNamara’s Band,” in which the comedian had the title role.
Along with 88 film and TV acting roles, Byner was a frequent guest on variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” both of David Letterman’s late night series and game shows like “The Match Game” and “The Hollywood Squares.”
Colomby discovered Keaton at the Comedy Store during the ‘70s, which began the comic’s transition to acting, starting with the CBS series “Working Stiffs.” The manager was a producer and writer for the show with a cast that included Jim Belushi and Allan Arbus.
Keaton’s breakout role came as Bill Blazejowski, the laugh magnet in the 1982 film “Night Shift,” starring Shelley Long and Henry Winkler. Other comedies, including “Mr. Mom” and “Beetlejuice” would follow, but to expand the actor’s range, Colomby steered Keaton to the 1998 drama “Clean and Sober,” opening a lane that would lead him to roles in the likes of “Batman,” “The Paper,” “Spotlight,” current Hulu series “Dopesick” and his Oscar-winning turn in the 2014 production “Birdman.”
A graduate of Columbia University, the middle Colomby son spent “the first nine years of his life in Germany, hiding from Nazis,” says brother Bobby, who adds that Harry learned English by memorizing a dictionary.
Colomby is survived by wife Lee, actor son Scott and younger brother Bobby. A memorial service is being planned to take place in January.