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Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness – A Review

Oct 21st, 2012 | By

Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, by David Kastin

W.W. Norton & Company, 2011; 272 pps; $26.95 hardcover

While it recounts a fascinating life, Nica’s Dream addresses the history of jazz and mid-century modernism, which encompassed all the arts. David Kastin introduces an impressive array of themes and threads that convey the richness of the cultural milieu in which the Jazz Baroness, who had a “modernist sensibility,” lived and carried out her work of hands-on jazz patron.

The book begins with the unhappy event that defined the Jazz Baroness to the public: the demise of Charlie Parker in her Manhattan hotel suite in 1955. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who preferred to be called Nica, had provided the ailing musician a comfortable refuge and the services of her physician. While her presence on the jazz scene had already brought press attention, her distress at Parker’s death was compounded by lurid and innuendo-filled tabloid accounts. For the rest of her life, she was shy of the media.

The author traces her family of origin, the Rothschilds of England, founded by 18th century merchant Nathan Rothschild, who emigrated from the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt to become a successful merchant and financier. In the 19th century, the Rothschild financial house became important to the British government, and overcoming anti-Semitism, the family entered upper-class society. After years of campaigning, in 1858 Lionel Rothschild became the first Jewish Member of Parliament, and his son Nathaniel took a seat in the House of Lords after Queen Victoria made him the first Baron Rothschild.

Nathaniel’s grandson Charles was sensitive and retiring and, following a family tradition, a serious naturalist. His wife Rozsika bore their youngest child, Kathleen Annie Pannonica, in 1913. Charles came up with her third name from a species of butterfly he had collected in Hungary, where he met his wife. He was largely absent from Nica’s childhood, as he suffered from mental and physical ailments that prompted his suicide when she was nine years old, causing her initially lively mother to grow fearful and overprotective. Nica’s upbringing was luxurious but also rigid and sequestered. While her brother went to school, she and her two sisters were educated at home.

At age 16, Nica was sent to Paris for a year of finishing school, given a Grand Tour of Europe, and presented to society. Escaping the family cocoon, she took up driving fast cars, piloting airplanes, and exploring the world. Baron Jules de Koenigswarter was French, ten years her senior and widowed with a young son. Like Nica, he came from a wealthy family in finance and enjoyed flying planes to exotic locales. Following their wedding in 1935 and a dashing honeymoon, the couple settled in Paris, where Jules established a diplomatic career and Nica, now a baroness, gave birth to two children.

The Nazi aggression drove Jules, a reserve officer, to join the Free French forces in England, while Nica sailed with the children to New York. In 1941, leaving the children in the care of the Guggenheim family, Nica returned to Europe to serve in the war in several roles, including radio broadcaster and battlefield ambulance driver. After the war, in which Jules’s mother and several of Nica’s relatives were killed, the family reunited in Paris, and then Jules’s career took them to Mexico City. Nica managed the household and social functions, and by 1950 she had born three more children.

Nica had been introduced to jazz by her brother Victor, and her fondness for jazz records was among the traits that annoyed her husband. Finding Jules too controlling and life as a diplomat’s wife unfulfilling, Nica started making solo excursions to New York, where she befriended Teddy Wilson, whom she had met when he gave Victor piano lessons in London. Wilson took her to jazz clubs and introduced her to the musicians. She was a serious listener who loved bebop and hanging out with its practitioners. In 1953, when Jules moved to an ambassadorial position in Manhattan, the couple decided to live apart. Nica moved into the Stanhope Hotel, joined by her teenage daughter Janka. Following Parker’s death, Jules divorced her; their three youngest children remained with him, and he remarried. Leaving behind a very different life, Nica found a calling and a home.

Kastin vividly describes the Nica of legend, a striking dark-haired woman in stylish suits with pearls and furs, who used a cigarette holder and discreetly sipped from a silver flask of whiskey. With the advantages of wealth, derring-do, and wartime experience driving ambulances, Nica was adept at steering her luxury car (first a Rolls, later a Bentley) through city traffic to arrive at a jazz club, where she likely double parked. On entry, she was noticed immediately but kept a low profile, listening attentively to the music. Musicians and jazz followers were favorably impressed by her straightforward generosity and genuine openness to people of various backgrounds, including racial, as well as her serious dedication to jazz.

In synchrony with the jazz world, Nica preferred a nocturnal routine. She liked to rise in the late afternoon and start her “day” by listening to records and doing some painting, mixing the pigments with novel substances such as whiskey and milk. She then set off to catch a late show at a club, and afterward she invited musicians to her digs for jamming and relaxation. She was adept at getting musicians to gigs at an acceptable hour, but for her own appointments, such as with music industry representatives, she often arrived hours, or even days, late.

Nica befriended numerous musicians; the author indicates that, with one possible exception, those friendships were platonic. She championed their music and frequently helped out with transportation and material support. (Nica had an ample trust fund, although perhaps less than it would have been without the negative, or at best ambivalent, attitude of her family toward her chosen life.) Among the musicians cited as friends and/or recipients of her help were several pianists, including Freddie Redd, Horace Silver, Hampton Hawes, Bud Powell, Mary Lou Williams and Barry Harris. She served as manager for a few musicians, such as saxophonist Hank Mobley and the original Jazz Messengers. She bought all the Messengers matching Ivy League suits and bought the drummer and cofounder Art Blakey a Rolls Royce and then his preferred car, a Cadillac. Kastin finds credible the rumor that she and Blakey were lovers for a time.

The author makes clear, however, that it was pianist and composer Thelonious Monk with whom Nica had the most significant and long-lasting friendship. She was a complete champion of Monk’s music, and she offered him and his family monetary assistance as needed; she bought him a Buick. Monk’s manager, Harry Colomby, told the author that the respect and support between the two was mutual, that Nica was proud to be in Monk’s company and that at a time when she was letting her alcohol use get out of hand, Monk helped her regain control. In turn, Monk could count on her for support when he suffered mental or financial distress.

After loss of his cabaret card forced Monk to take a long hiatus from New York clubs the Thelonious Monk Quintet, featuring John Coltrane, was hired in 1957 to play at the Five Spot Cafe. The author gives prominence to the Five Spot, which was a favored hangout of many modernist artists, including visual artists Frank Smith, Willem de Kooning and Larry Rivers, and writers and poets Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac. Monk liked the Five Spot, and the regulars took to his music, as did other audience members like the writer and activist LeRoi Jones and the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Nica and Monk became friends with Ginsberg, who gave Monk a copy of his recently published poem “Howl,” of which Monk stated his approval with the terse statement, “It makes sense.” The Five Spot chapter includes an entertaining account of filming Kerouac’s short play Pull My Daisy, as told by David Amram, a French horn player, raconteur, and founding member of the “Five Spot scene.” Although it involves neither Nica nor Monk, the story has resonance within the book as a whole, where movie-making is a recurring motif.

The Five Spot also engaged musicians who played the new free jazz, including pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Kastin suggests that by the early 1960s, free jazz was supplanting bop as the preferred jazz genre of some modernist painters and writers, who perceived the newer style to be more in tune with their work. Despite her attachment to bop and Monk, Nica paid serious attention to free jazz and was friendly with Ornette Coleman while confused by his music.

At the Bolivar Hotel, where Nica lived after being evicted from the Stanhope, fellow residents’ complaints about the late-hours hubbub (and about Monk’s odd demeanor in the hallways) led that establishment to ask her to leave. After a short stay at the Algonquin Hotel resulted in eviction for similar reasons, in 1958 Nica purchased a private home in Weehauken, NJ, a tunnel drive from Manhattan, where she lived the rest of her life. The striking modernistic house, built for film director Josef von Sternberg, became a hangout for numerous jazz musicians and other artists. Her home was first nicknamed the Mad Pad, but the named settled on was the Cathouse, a pun on the “jazz cats” who mingled with (or avoided) the ever-growing collection of housecats she carefully tended. She recorded many of the jam sessions that went on there, and she took snapshots of the musicians playing and relaxing. Nica made spare rooms available to those in need of living space; pianist Barry Harris lived there for a while.

As Monk withdrew from music and social interaction, his wife Nellie and their children found him increasingly difficult to care for and appreciated Nica’s help in that regard. In 1973 he moved into her home where, always dressed in a suit, he lay in bed most of the time, talking only with Nica. She arranged her life around his needs, personally tending to his meals and his comfort. She and the musicians who occasionally visited encouraged him to resume musical activity, to no avail.

After Monk’s death from stroke in 1982, Nica started visiting a few recently opened venues that presented musicians who had been active in the years when Nica had been most involved in the jazz scene. She attended, and quietly supported, the Jazz Cultural Theatre, founded by Barry Harris for teaching as well as performance. At home, she visited with her children, with all of whom she had warm relations, and cared for her cats. Nica died of heart failure in 1988.

Kastin interviewed musicians, industry people and journalists who associated with Nica, but he notes that Nica’s children politely declined to speak with him about their mother or to grant access to her personal papers, including a journal of her life in New York, or her audio tapes of jam sessions. He did interview two relations who met Nica late in her life: her brother’s granddaughter Hannah Rothschild, who made a video documentary about Nica (and a book published after this one), and her stepson’s daughter Nadine de Koenigswarter, who brought to publication the book Three Wishes, Nica’s snapshots of musicians and transcriptions of their “wishes,” for which she was unable to find a publisher in her lifetime.

The memory of the Jazz Baroness endures musically in the numerous compositions she inspired, listed in the book’s Selected Discography. Among them are Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” Thelonious Monk’s “Little Butterfly” (lyrics by Jon Hendricks) and “Pannonica,” Gigi Gryce’s “Nica’s Tempo,” and Freddy Redd’s “Theme for Nica.” Monk’s “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” and Art Blakey’s “Weehauken Mad Pad” pay tribute to Nica’s abodes, where jazz was always welcome.

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