Book title: The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild
Author: Hannah Rothschild
No one lucky enough to have seen Thelonious Monk on the bandstand will ever forget it. He wore sunglasses and strange headgear — skullcaps, bowlers, fur caps suited to the Russian steppes and straw hats meant to shade Chinese farmers from the sun. Over six feet tall, he dwarfed every piano he played and attacked the keyboard with splayed fingers and sometimes with his elbows, his right foot slamming the floor. He lumbered to his feet to dance from time to time too, spinning in place to urge his musicians on. Early listeners, confronted by his strange persona, his unconventional rhythms, unusual chords and unprecedented voicings pronounced him “weird”, “anarchic”.
In fact, his music is supremely logical: Monk may lead you into uncharted territory but he always leads you right out again. Today, he is considered one of the three or four greatest geniuses in the history of the music, the most important jazz composer after Duke Ellington.
The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter seems to have understood that from the moment she first heard Monk’s haunting masterpiece, ’Round Midnight. The sound and feeling of it changed her life, as her great-niece, the filmmaker, Hannah Rothschild, recounts in The Baroness. It eventually persuaded her to walk away from the rarefied world of the great Jewish banking family to which both women belonged and begin life all over again as the friend and patron of Monk and a host of other, mostly black, musicians, struggling to survive in the underground world of New York City. “I belonged where that music was,” she once explained, “It was a real calling.”
That decision appalled her relatives. Hannah Rothschild was 11 years old before she was told of her great aunt’s existence and 22 before she met her in person in a cellar club in Manhattan. She found her fascinating, saw in her a Rothschild who had managed to reinvent herself, and spent some 25 years, off and on, trying to understand how and why she did it.
Sadly for all her sleuthing, the author seems to have found out very little about her aunt’s life in the jazz world that does not appear in two earlier books: Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness by David Kastin and Robin D.G. Kelley’s authoritative Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. And her pages are larded with too much half-digested history. It’s not true that jazz “evolved in the cotton fields”, for example; jazz is sophisticated big-city music. Black bebop musicians didn’t succumb to narcotics because slave-masters had fed their ancestors cocaine to keep them working (a dubious claim, to begin with); they got high for the same reasons white musicians got high — because it felt good.