The woman behind the songs
“The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild”
By Hannah Rothschild (Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95)
Even jazz listeners who are not familiar with the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter have heard some of the compositions she inspired. She was nicknamed “Pannonica” from a young age, and pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, for whom de Koenigswarter acted as patron and friend for many years, wrote a composition of the same name dedicated to her. Other pieces inspired by the baroness are “Nica’s Dream” by Horace Silver, “Tonica” by Kenny Dorham, “Poor Butterfly” by Sonny Rollins, and many more.
The baroness was born in 1913 Kathleen Annie Rothschild, a member of the European banking family. After World War II, she moved to New York, where she spent the rest of her life until her death in 1988, befriending and managing Monk, Bud Powell, and many other musicians who played the music she loved, and repaid her with many musical tributes.
Why did the baroness leave her marriage to Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, and the comforts of the Rothschild family? Her great-niece, documentarian Hannah Rothschild, started to explore that question some 25 years ago, but, sensitive to her family’s resistance, dropped the project. Now she has “finished” her search with the release of “The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild,” a book I recommend to music listeners, anyone interested in 1950s America, and to anyone interested in Durham’s musical history (more later).
Rothschild did meet her great-aunt, and remembers her as being “fun. She lived in the moment, she was not reflective or didactic, and she did not seek to burden you with her knowledge or her experiences,” she writes. Later in life, she kept hundreds of cats, and while she eschewed the trappings of wealth, allowed herself the luxury of a fur coat, and drove musicians around in her Bentley (known as the “Bebop Bentley”). Rothschild sets out to find out if Nica was more than a bohemian eccentric. “Again and again I asked, who are you Nica?” Rothschild writes. “Heroine or lush? Freedom fighter or dilettante? Rebel or victim?” She also wants to explore the role of family in Nica’s history: “Is it possible to escape from one’s past or are we forever trapped in layers of inherited attitudes and ancient expectation?”
The book then is really two stories. Rothschild gives us a brief history of her family, who at one time were “the bankers to governments and monarchs…. As the financiers of armies and industry, it was said that no one went to war or considered peace without first consulting the Rothschilds,” she writes. The family was Jewish, and fought the anti-Semitism of the time by becoming close-knit and taking care of their own.
Nica’s brother Victor (Hannah Rothschild’s grandfather) and sister Miriam broke out of those expectations by pursuing careers in science, rather than lives of cloistered leisure. Rothshild wonders whether Nica “resented living in the shadow of her highly successful sister and brother. Was her later decision to live abroad an attempt to establish herself elsewhere, away from their spotlight?”
The other story is about Nica’s life at the center of jazz in post-war New York. She developed a love of jazz from her brother Victor, who introduced her to pianist Teddy Wilson, who introduced her to pianist Mary Lou Williams. When Nica heard Monk’s “Round Midnight,” she decided she must meet “the eighth wonder of the world.” In Paris, Williams introduced Nica to Monk. “From that moment, Nica’s life changed,” Rothschild writes. “For the next twenty-eight years she would devote her life to Thelonious Monk, laying her time and love at the musician’s feet like a cloth of devotion.” She even took the rap for Monk when her car was searched when she was driving Monk to a concert date near Baltimore. The officer found marijuana in the car. Rather than have Monk sent to prison, Nica said the drugs were hers and was found guilty. (The case was dismissed on appeal.)
Indirectly, Nica de Koenigswarter’s story is connected to Durham. Mary Lou Williams, who taught at Duke until her death in 1981, and for whom Duke named a cultural center, was a close friend of Nica’s. Rothschild reprints several of Williams’ letters to Nica. Paul Jeffrey, former director of jazz studies at Duke, was Monk’s last saxophone player, up until Monk died in 1982. Besides playing in Monk’s band, Jeffrey also would help watch Monk as the pianist’s physical and mental health deteriorated. He also “became Monk’s helper,” making sure the pianist got to scheduled concerts and back home. His recollections are some of the most touching in this book.
Durham also once tried to tie part of downtown redevelopment to Monk. Beginning in 1988, Durham began an all-out effort to attract the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute, holding fundraising galas, even purchasing downtown land. (The institute eventually went elsewhere.)
Rothschild’s book is an enjoyable, madcap read about a woman who once raced Miles Davis in a car, worked in the war effort in North Africa and Europe, and finally, “played a part in nurturing a generation of struggling musicians. … In return she received the one thing she lacked and desperately missed during her childhood: friendship.”