Love At First Listen: 'The Jazz Baroness' Jazz great Thelonius Monk had a unique sound that won him millions of fans — and it certainly stole the heart of the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. In a new documentary, The Jazz Baroness, filmmaker Hannah Rothschild explores the unusual friendship between the American jazz pianist and the Englishwoman, and the impact they made on modern music.
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Love At First Listen: 'The Jazz Baroness'

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Love At First Listen: 'The Jazz Baroness'

Love At First Listen: 'The Jazz Baroness'

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(Soundbite of music, "Pannonica")

GROSS: During the last few years of Thelonious Monk's life, when he had too many physical and mental elements for his wife to handle, he moved in with the baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the woman Monk's biographer describes as Monk's patron saint and friend. She helped Monk financially and saw him through many crises. He was just one of many jazz musicians she befriended and helped. The Monk composition we're listening to now, �Pannonica,� is one of many pieces jazz composers dedicated to her.

The baroness was part of the Rothschild family. Now, her great grand niece, Hannah Rothschild, has made a documentary called �The Jazz baroness.� You can see it on HBO2 this month. It's also on, On Demand through December 20th. Hannah Rothschild makes documentaries about the arts for the BBC. Here is a clip from the film featuring Thelonious Monk Jr. talking about the baroness.

(Soundbite of documentary, �The Jazz Baroness�)

Mr. THELONIOUS MONK JR. (Jazz Drummer, Composer): She believed he was genius the first day she heard him play. And she never wavered from that - one iota.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MONK Jr.: But she was there when the critics didn't get it, and half the musicians didn't get it. But she got it. And I think that that was very important to her and I think that was very, very important to him too. He loved her for that.

GROSS: Hannah Rothschild, welcome to FRESH AIR. Could you do like a roll call of some of the musicians that Nica was friends with that she tried to help in some way?

Ms. HANNAH ROTHSCHILD (Freelance Writer, Filmmaker): Well, there was Sonny Rollins, there was Bud Powell, there was Chico Hamilton, there was Paul Jeffreys(ph), there was Thelonious Monk, there was Charlie Parker, there was Charlie Rouse, there was Art Blakey, there was Miles Davis. I need the book in front of me because there was about 400 of them.

GROSS: Here was this baroness who is born into the Rothschild family, who is befriending jazz musicians and helping them as a patron as well.

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: That's right.

GROSS: And it must have been so interesting to be her and to be in this totally different world that the world that she was raised in. And it must have also been really interesting for the jazz musicians to have a baroness who was a friend, you know.

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Well, you know, I think - and that's one of the nice things about talking to those of her friends was that their sense of wonder, if you like, what they still retained. I mean, there is fantastic stories about - one, Chico Hamilton, for example, who is a wonderful drummer, said that he remembered the first time he saw her she was trying to load Slam Stewart's double bass on to the roof of her Bentley. Another musician told a great story about, you know, her deciding she was going to drive from right uptown to right down to the Village without stopping at a red light. I mean, they still love the idea of this flamboyant woman, who didn't really give it damn, taking interest in them. And for her you see I think that she was, you know, the Rothschild family - they're not a traditional upper class aristocratic family by any means. I mean, they're Jewish by origin. So, therefore they were slightly outside society. They - her great aunt and her aunts and some of her uncles perished in the Holocaust. So, she was never going to behave like you, kind of, you know, communal garden English toff, if you like. I don't know if that translates over there, but - and they gave her a life as much as, you know, she tried to help them. You have to understand that they also gave her this extraordinary gift of their music and their friendship.

GROSS: What's one of your favorite stories about her and how she helped jazz musicians?

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: She first heard a Monk record in 1951. And she heard "Round Midnight." And it was a powerful enough emotional experience for her to inspire her to move to New York and try and find the man who made the music. At that time, Monk was actually off the scene. He had lost his cabaret card and the right to play. She heard that he was playing in Paris in 1954. So she flew, rather ironically, from New York to Paris to hear him and she was introduced there by a mutual friend, Mary Lou Williams. She was so absolutely besotted and crazy about his music that the next thing she did was to call London and she booked this place called the Royal Albert Hall.

Now the Royal Albert Hall, for those of who don't know it, perhaps in America, holds 5,544 people, okay. So it's a big concert hall. So, she booked it for five Sundays in a row and she told Monk, you know, I've booked the biggest concert hall in London at that time, you know, for you to play in and he was, of course, delighted. But being Nica, and not being the most of practical of people, she forgot to ask whether he needed a permit or not. And indeed he did. So, she was left with the Albert Hall and no one to put in it for five Sundays in a row. But it's a story she tells against herself, which in - and it sums up what Nica's like: impulsive, not fantastically practical, completely passionate about the music, you know, wanting everybody to share in her enthusiasm for this great guy.

GROSS: Nica reinvented herself in New York when she left her family. She was separated from her husband, right? She was divorced before she moved to New York?

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: No, she got divorced after she arrived in New York. They separated when she came to New York.

GROSS: Okay.

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: But she never - I think it's very important - very, very important to say this - is that she never left her children. I mean, she did indeed leave her marriage in 1951, but she never left her children. And her elder daughter, Yanka(ph) lived with her, first in various different hotels they lived it, and then later in Weehawken with Yanka's son Stephen(ph). And the other children also lived with her off and on at various times. So, it's very different I think to say that she deserted her whole family. She left her husband, yes, that's indisputable, but she didn't leave her children.

GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley, who just wrote a biography of Thelonious Monk told us some stories about Monk's relationship with Nica. Can you talk a little bit about Nica's relationship with Charlie Parker and what you've learned about how they became friends?

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Yes, well she would go and see Parker play at Birdland or on 52nd Street. And Nica saw a completely different side of Parker. She saw the lonely bird. She saw the man whose child had died. She saw the man whose relationships had broken up. She saw the man who had nowhere to live. She saw the person whose life was ravaged by his addictions. So, she felt, I think, rather protective about Parker. When he knocked on her door that fatal night in 1955 when she was at the Stanhope, although it was a segregated hotel and black people weren't allowed in there expect through the servants' entrance, or the service entrance, I think you say in America. She had no hesitation but to take him in. And she immediately called her physician and he came around. And Parker was supposed to be playing in Boston, but he wasn't well enough. But, you know, she saw another side of Parker and she wanted to help him. I mean, I think that she did try and get him into hospital by all accounts. But he didn't want to go.

GROSS: And this is how he ended up dying in her�

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, and he dies there of, you know, while - famously while watching "The Tommy Dorsey Show,� a juggling show on telly. He laughed, choked and then died. But what's nice about that story is that I think that again it's quite typical of Nica to look for the good in people. So that, you know, while other people saw Parker as someone who, you know, was a junkie who, you know, ripped off whoever he could in order to get drugs, which is what junkies have to do, she looked beyond that.

GROSS: Did Nica ever tell you what it was about "Round Midnight" that made her so passionate about it?

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: No, and, you know, it's one - you know, sometimes you think, oh God, if only I could have another hour or two somebody. It's one of the questions I would ask her. I would say, what on Earth was it? However, a lost interview did turn up and she said that - she described listening to it. She said she played it 20 times in a row. And she said that she cried while listening to it. And I suppose in a way that says everything, doesn't it? You know, I think it was quite literally like a spell being cast on someone.

GROSS: Hannah Rothschild, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Hannah Rothschild's documentary about her great aunt called, �The Jazz Baroness.� It's on HBO2 and On Demand this month.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. I'm Terry Gross.

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