Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nica's Dream Is Fascinating Story of the Jazz Baroness

Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness
David Kastin
New York: WWNorton

Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter played an intriguing, even crucial role, in New York City’s jazz scene in the fifties through the eighties. A member of the Rothschild family, Nica, as she was known, was a patron to a number of the most significant jazz artists of the time including Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Barry Harris, Mary Lou Williams, and Thelonious Monk. She was, in the eyes of some, a controversial and scandalous figure as some of the tabloid sheets wrote about her and the death of Charlie Parker. David Kastin has attempted to separate fact from myth in providing her story, one he was able to cast from news accounts and interviews with many of the musicians who knew her as well as published interviews with her. Unfortunately limited assistance were provided by her children who have generally held to Rothschild family custom of not talking about family matters. Still Kastin weaves a fascinating portrait

Kastin provides a background in the history of the Rothschilds, including the immediate ancestors and siblings of Pannonica which include individuals who would be viewed as eccentric as she would. Her early life, including the somewhat sheltered life she had, her marriage and her experiences as part of the French Resistance in World War II are described as is her introduction to jazz while living in Mexico with her husband, who was a diplomat, when she heard excerpts of Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown & Beige.” She had met Teddy Wilson in Europe and started making forays into New York City with Wilson, who in his Harlem apartment played Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” which would prove pivotal.

Estranged from her husband who tried to have a very controlling relationship, she moved to New York beginning a remarkable life over several decades where she befriended and hosted so many famous musicians at the Stanhope Hotel, and two other hotels . She outwore her welcome in each because of her relationship with musicians coming in at all hours. Eventually, she had a home in New Jersey, overlooking Manhattan known as the Cathouse because of the countless felines that lived there along with musicians who would come by at all hours (like they had when she was at a hotel). Kastin weaves in a history of big band jazz, bebop along with other progressive artist groups like the beats and painters like Jackson Pollack.

She was able to develop a relationship with musicians of totally different circumstances who learned that she appreciated them as artists and did not regard them as exotics. She also appreciated their music and they learned to value her opinions as well, advice and patronage. Charlie Parker took ill, but not wanting to go to a hospital, she had her personal doctor look after him. He died watching television at her Stanhope hotel suite leading to scandal in the papers (the white rich woman and black jazz artist) and leading her husband to finally file for divorce, although the scandal was more of ‘no good deed going unpunished.’

Other jazz greats would have lengthy associations with Nica, but none more importantly than Thelonious Monk. There relationship was of strong, close, platonic friends and Monk’s wife Nellie also became a good friend. A good portion of this book is the story of Nica and Monk’s relationship, and how she fostered and supported his music and person. The affection Monk had for her is reflected in the two compositions he wrote for her, “Pannonica” and “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lue-are.” The latter tune refers to the Hotel Bolivar, where she moved after the Stanhope management made it clear she was no longer welcome them. Monk was not alone in celebrating Nica. Sonny Clark, Kenny Dorham, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Drew, Gigi Gryce, Freddie Redd, Barry Harris, and Horace Silver also wrote memorable compositions in her honor.

The lengthy discussion of Monk and Nica complements that in Robert Kelley’s superb biography, “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of An American Original.” Kelley in fact provides a blurb praising this book as “a stunning cultural biography of New York City and a riveting portrait of one the most fascinating figures of the twentieth century.” Kelley’s succinct comments summarize my feelings about this volume on a lady who made substantial contributions to the jazz scene of the fifties through eighties without playing a note. Her story will captivate any fan of this music as it did me.

I purchased this book.

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