Living with David Diamond

Noal Cohen

Noal Cohen is a musician, jazz historian, and record collector living in Montclair, New Jersey. A retired chemist, he co-authored "Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce" with Michael Fitzgerald.  He is David Diamond's nephew and offers a unique perspective on what it was like living with the acclaimed American composer.  I'm so pleased that he agreed to this exclusive online interview.  ~ Brenda Tremblay

Sabina Diamond Cohen

BT: First, please describe the relationship between the composer and your mother, his sister Sabina.

NC: My mother, Sabina Diamond Cohen (1901-1991), was David’s keeper. She did everything for him, including paying his bills on time. Their relationship was a bit bizarre in that she was more a mother figure than a sibling, at least regarding routine matters of daily life. This put me in a position that sometimes seemed awkward as I felt more like David’s little brother than his nephew.

My mother carried herself with an aura of elegance and erudition that belied her lack of education beyond high school. I strongly suspect this came from David who would guide her in terms of what literature to read, what art to appreciate, what clothes to wear, etc. So there was a trade off here. My mother took care of the mundane daily responsibilities associated with David’s life, but he reciprocated by providing her with knowledge and tastes that he had acquired from his own extensive contacts, travels and experiences as a creative artist. She also basked in the acclaim that David received, especially when attending performances of his works.


David Diamond

BT: David lived with you on Edgerton Street in Rochester on and off over the years.  What was that like?

NC: Perhaps I should first mention that until their deaths in the 1950s, my maternal grandparents Anna and Osias Diamond lived with us in the Edgerton St. house. I was never sure exactly which part of Europe they emigrated from but suspect it was probably what is now Ukraine. Their English skills were limited and Yiddish was often spoken (but never taught to me). My grandmother did most of the cooking for as long as she was able to and she could always be counted on to come up with a variety of old-country delicacies. The house had five bedrooms on the second floor but only one bathroom. When David was staying with us we had a houseful and it was fortunate that I was an only child or there would have been some serious privacy issues.

Noal Cohen and his Uncle David

Yes, David would make extended stays at our house, although he lived for several years in Florence, Italy during the 1950s. When my parents had the attic finished, the renovation included a small bedroom and that’s where David would sleep. On the wall he had a large, autographed photo of the great French author André Gide. There was also a photo of dancer/choreographer Martha Graham whom he knew. But my father, Hymen (1900-1979), and David did not get along and I have memories of knock-down-drag-out shouting matches. Although he never discussed it with me, I suspect that my dad resented David’s lifestyle, selfishness and the demands he placed on Sabina.

We kept a kosher home and were members of a local conservative congregation (Temple Beth El). David was never an observant person and seemed to have little use for organized religion, but the Jewish tradition was reflected in his compositions “Kaddish” and “Hebrew Melodies for Voice and Piano.”

As long as I can remember, there was a bronze bust of David on the living room mantelpiece, on either side of which were shelves filled with 12-inch, 78 R.P.M. albums of music - symphonies, concerti, chamber music, by composers of all eras. Although my mother worked for several years at McCurdy’s in downtown Rochester as buyer in the phonograph and record department, I suspect my uncle played a major role in the selection of those recordings, of which I availed myself, playing them on our state-of-the-art Magnavox phonograph/FM receiver.

In 1966 my parents gave the Edgerton St. house to David and moved into an apartment nearby. My mother continued to look after the house, however, especially when David was in New York City teaching at Juilliard.


BT: What are your memories of him composing?

NC: I remember him composing at the piano. He would play the harmonies, sometimes with great flourish and emotion as if trying to simulate how the piece would sound when performed by the ensemble for which it was being written.

BT: What were the challenges for your family of living with a brilliant artist?

NC: I don’t subscribe to the widely held belief that genius and mental instability are related. David was a handful, there’s no question about that. He had an alcohol problem that exacerbated a tendency to undermine opportunities his brilliance would present. But I don’t think he was emotionally disturbed. What I remember was someone who was coddled and spoiled because of his talents and intellect and never learned humility and how to be respectful and kind to others, especially those less gifted than he or who held different opinions. As for his sexual orientation, that subject was NEVER mentioned in our home and certainly must have been a source of great consternation to my parents and grandparents. I didn’t learn that he was gay until I was an adult. David never discussed the subject with me.

BT: What kind of uncle was he?

NC: Well, unconventional, to say the least. As I said, I sometimes felt more like his brother than his nephew and I also think that he viewed me as a competitor for my mother’s attention. He loved to tell family stories that sometimes seemed fabricated or embellished. He enjoyed shocking people. When he first met my wife, he startled her with, “I bet you’re really great in bed.”


David Diamond was a painter as well as a composer.

BT: He was infamous for his volatile personality.  How did you feel about him?

NC: To paraphrase the jazz saxophonist Zoot Sims describing his colleague Stan Getz, David was “a nice bunch of guys.” In other words, he could be charming, eloquent, informative and entertaining but also nasty, cruel, insulting and arrogant. The latter characteristics would often emerge after a few drinks. I witnessed him devastate dinner parties at our home when a comment made by one of the guests triggered his anger and led him to verbally assault and humiliate the individual in such a forceful and inappropriate manner that everyone present, myself included, just wanted to disappear. But fortunately, I can’t recall ever being the object of his wrath when I was a child. The problems began later on.

BT: Did he entertain?  Whom did you meet?

NC: Occasionally famous people would visit our home. I remember talking to Alec Wilder there about some of the recordings I had begun collecting. The actress Olivia De Havilland visited David once which absolutely thrilled my mother. And I distinctly recall taking a phone message for David from Maestro Leopold Stokowski.

BT: You became a professional jazz musician for a while - and then a scientist. Did your uncle teach you music?

NC: This is one of my biggest disappointments and missed opportunities. I loved music – all kinds of music, but jazz in particular. I really wanted to be a professional musician but, although sending me for private piano lessons, my parents clearly had other ideas and I was steered into “more practical” career pathways, ending up as an organic/medicinal chemist. David’s personal problems as a creative artist may very well have shaped their attitude. I tried to share my musical interests with him but he showed little interest in participating and treated me as if I was on a much lower intellectual plane. It could also have been that my parents asked or instructed him not to encourage me in any way or that he considered jazz a musical genre unworthy of his attention (this was the 1950s, after all). What I know about music I largely picked up by myself, by association with other musicians and occasional formal lessons. I studied snare drum with John Beck at Eastman after I graduated from the U. of R. From 1956 until 1961 when I left the city, I had the privilege of playing with some of the outstanding Rochester musicians at the time including the Mangione brothers and many Eastman students, notably bassist Ron Carter. I have written about 30 jazz compositions and at one point I sent one of them to David. His response: “There’s nothing there.”

I have several books of children’s piano pieces that David composed. The oldest one, “Eight Piano Pieces by David Diamond,” was published in 1940 by Schirmer, Inc. and has a handwritten inscription: “These pieces written so long ago for Noal, With Love, David, June 29, 1949.” At the time I was 11 years old and being forced to take the aforementioned piano lessons which I hated and which ended not much later (mercifully, for the teacher and for me – I showed little aptitude at the piano). Perhaps it was my poor response to the lessons that led David to conclude that I wasn’t serious about or had little promise in music.

Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton

However, let me relate one musical event for which David was responsible that had a significant impact on me. When he lived in New York City (Greenwich Village), one of his neighbors was the great New Orleans drummer Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton (1898-1975) who was a member of Louis Armstrong’s legendary “Hot Five.” When I was around 14 and just starting to seriously listen to jazz, Singleton came through Rochester and appeared at a tavern on the corner of Goodman St. and S. Clinton, the name of which escapes me. The drummer came alone and performed with some local musicians, probably Eastman students, including, of all things, a French horn player. They were not at all compatible with Singleton’s older style. At any rate, David took my father and me to the club where I met the drum master and got to hear him play. From that experience I learned that a drum set could be used to make music, not just showy demonstrations of technique. His solos were incredibly well constructed and almost lyrical. It was an eye-opener and something I never forgot.

BT: I was sad to learn of your mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s disease in the 1970’s. How did David react to his sister’s illness?

NC: As my mother declined, this became a major problem. David couldn’t seem to accept the fact that the person on whom he had relied for so long was unable to do the things he had come to expect of her. He was in denial and caused serious problems when it became clear that his sister needed to be relocated to a nursing home. I remember him exploding and walking out of a meeting with a social worker when we were trying to come to an agreement regarding her future.

At the end it became clear that my uncle didn’t like me very much. People in Rochester that were close to him have communicated this to me. I’m sure that much of his displeasure was associated with disagreements over his sister’s situation, but I have a strong feeling the animosity started much earlier. David didn’t seem to like scientists and had a stereotypic view of them (including me) as cold and calculating, devoid of human warmth. After my mother was out of the picture, he never contacted me (or any other family member, for that matter) for assistance, advice or companionship.


David Diamond

BT: Please tell us about the last time you saw him.

NC: The last time I saw him was the day before he died in 2005. I was in Rochester for the Jazz Festival. My cousin and I had gone to visit him at Wolk Manor and found him in bad shape, sitting in a chair but hardly responsive. He did recognize us but we couldn’t really have a conversation. The next day I got a phone call that he had passed.

BT: What is your favorite piece of music by David Diamond?

NC: I would have to say “Rounds for String Orchestra.” It’s a very accessible and moving piece of music and the first one I can remember hearing. I am also fond of “Music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” and “Symphony No. 4” which I was delighted to hear the RPO perform last March.*

BT: Any other thoughts on his legacy?

NC: David was brilliant, a true intellectual. His mind was like a sponge. I have always wished that I had gotten some of those genes. Besides his composing, he was an accomplished painter and writer. He was working on his autobiography when he died and that would certainly have been a most interesting read. Conductor Gerard Schwarz must be commended for his advocacy of David’s music. Hopefully David will eventually be elected to the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.


Painting by David Diamond

* The RPO's performance of David Diamond's Fourth Symphony airs July 20 and October 5 at 8 p.m. on FM 91.5 and 90.3, streaming at