Footmen, Mansions And Jazz: The Life Of 'Nica' She cried the first time she heard Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," and proceeded to dedicate her life (and massive inheritance) to jazz. A new biography delves into the life of Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, aka "The Jazz Baroness."
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Footmen, Mansions And Jazz: The Life Of 'Nica'

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Footmen, Mansions And Jazz: The Life Of 'Nica'

Footmen, Mansions And Jazz: The Life Of 'Nica'

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She was known as The Jazz Baroness. In the 1950s and '60s, she was a patron to the likes of Thelonious Monk. Charlie Parker died in her hotel room. Now, a new biography tells the story of Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter. It's called "Nica's Dream."

From New York, Tom Vitale has her story.

TOM VITALE: She was married to a baron, flew airplanes herself, fought for the French Resistance in North Africa. She smoked cigarettes from a holder, sipped Chivas from a silver flask. And for the last three decades of her life, she dedicated herself to helping jazz musicians.


KATHLEEN ANNIE PANNONICA DE KOENIGSWARTER: Good evening, everybody. This is "Nica's Tempo," and tonight, we are coming to you direct from the Five Spot Cafe, and that beautiful music you hear is coming from Thelonious Monk and his quartet.

VITALE: In this out-of-print recording from 1958, Nica played disc jockey for a make-believe radio show she called "Nica's Tempo."

David Amram met her two years earlier, when he was a 25-year-old French horn player in bassist Oscar Pettiford's band.

DAVID AMRAM: It's easy to just dismiss her, to say this was just some wealthy, privileged person doing what they used to call slumming. That was not the case. She was elevating herself by being with these musicians. Just as all of us who are lucky enough to play with them, young kids like myself at that time knew that we were of something of huge, lasting value.

VITALE: And Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild knew about value. She was born in 1913 into one of the wealthiest families in the world, says biographer David Kastin.

DAVID KASTIN: She's a Rothschild. She grew up in this kind of fairytale existence - huge country estates and London mansions and private tutors and footmen and governesses.

VITALE: But in 1951, Nica, as she was known, had an epiphany. She was on her way from London to join her husband, Jules, who was then the French ambassador to Mexico. On a stopover in New York, Kastin says she got a call from an old family friend who used to give her brother piano lessons.

KASTIN: Teddy Wilson, the great swing-era pianist, caught her on the way to the airport. And the story goes that he told her that she had to hear this new pianist and sat her down and played Monk's "Round Midnight."


KASTIN: She burst into tears. She had him play the record 20 times in a row. She missed her flight. Stayed in New York for a couple of more weeks. Headed home, and before long, she was back in New York permanently.

VITALE: Nica moved into the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue and immersed herself in the jazz scene.

She drove her Rolls-Royce to the clubs on 52nd Street each night. She made friends with the musicians.


VITALE: One night, saxophonist Charlie Parker showed up at her door.

KASTIN: He had come to the Stanhope Hotel, took ill. She took care of him at home. He resisted going to the emergency room. And a couple of days later, when he passed away, she was splashed all over the front pages of the tabloids: "Bop King Dies in Heiress' Flat."

VITALE: The scandal led her husband to divorce her. She was kicked out of the Stanhope and moved across Central Park to the Bolivar Hotel. There, she fed her musician friends, got their horns out of hock, bought them cars and pianos, gave them a place to crash and a place to jam.

And that was priceless, says David Amram.

AMRAM: It was so difficult. There were very few gigs. So, basically, any time you could play music or express music or just have the camaraderie of being with a musician and playing something and working out something or jamming together, even in a safe environment, was so rare.

VITALE: Perhaps Nica's greatest contribution to jazz was nurturing the career of the man who first inspired her, Thelonious Monk. At the time, biographer David Kastin says Monk was an underappreciated genius who struggled with drugs, legal problems and mental illness.

KASTIN: People dismissed him as a pianist, and he was so different. He also, of course, lost his cabaret card for long periods of time - six years, two years. During which time, he couldn't play in New York. And she helped him survive and his family.


THELONIOUS MONK: Hi, everybody. I would like to play a little tune I just composed not so long ago entitled "Pannonica." It was named after this beautiful lady here, Pannonica.


VITALE: Thelonious Monk's composition is one of a half dozen jazz tributes to Nica. She eventually bought a mansion on the Hudson River, in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Monk lived the last decade of his life.

David Amram says what Nica offered everyone was encouragement.

AMRAM: Nica showed, during a period that was extraordinarily difficult, that someone cared. And Nica was that one person for so many who, after they were told 400 times that what they were doing was worthless, a waste of time and nobody was interested and even checking out what they were doing, Nica was the person that not only did want to hear that but appreciated it and made you feel that you were worthwhile.

VITALE: Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter died in 1988. At her request, her children scattered her ashes over the Hudson River one night round midnight.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


MONK: Merci beaucoup, ladies and gentlemen.

Unidentified Man: Thank you, Thelonious Monk.


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