San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘The Jazz Baroness’
By Gail Feinstein Forman
LA JOLLA, California–The Jazz Baroness presents a memorable portrait of a black sheep of the Jewish Rothschild family, Pannonica de Koenigswater Rothschild. Brought up in the world of British wealth and privilege and married to a handsome baron, she was used to high society life.
But it was her sojourn into the 1940’s-1950’s world of black American jazz where she gained her notoriety. She became benefactor to such jazz greats as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, both who took up residence in her home. “Nica,” as she was known, paid their bills, took the rap when they were busted for marijuana, and chauffeured them to jazz gigs making sure they were not slighted because they were black.
Pannonica’s grandniece, filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, came across Pannonica’s name while searching her family history. Intrigued by what little she could learn from the Rothschild’s themselves, Hannah went on a ten-year search to find out as much as possible about this iconoclast from the rich and famous who followed her passion for jazz and the men who created it.
Pannonica and her husband had lived in New York off and on from the late 1930’s when her husband was in the French diplomatic service. This allowed Pannonica the opportunity to frequent the many jazz clubs throughout the city. Her brother, an amateur musician, first introduced her to jazz and she embraced it with a passion.
Through her research, Hannah uncovered a taped interview of Pannonica discussing her interest in jazz. In the interview, Pannonica describes how she fell under the influence of Thelonius Monk, the jazz great with whom she had a long-term love affair.
In the tape, Nica recounts that when she was on her way back from New York to Mexico where her husband was a diplomatic mission, she stopped at a friend’s house along the way to the airport. The friend asked her if she had ever heard “Round Midnight,” the classic jazz composition by Theolonius Monk.
Nica said “Well, I’d never even heard of Thelonius then. I must have played it twenty times in a row and then more. I missed my plane and never went home.”
It was two years before she actually got the chance to hear Monk in person. She heard he was playing in Paris, so Nica took a plane to Paris to be there for his first performance. They met each other backstage and hit it off right away. Nica said, “We hung out for a week. We had a ball!” Infatuated by Monk, she rented the hall he was playing so as not to miss a performance.
The meeting with Monk changed Nica’s life. First she had fallen in love with the music, and then she fell in love with the man.
She took up residence in New York and acted as patron, confidante, and manager through his erratic life, entailing severe bouts of depression and drugs.
Nica’s bohemian life scandalized the Rothschild family and she paid a high personal price. In 1951, after Charlie Parker was found dead on Nica’s sofa, her husband divorced her, and she lost custody of her three youngest children-she had five- for several years.
Though Monk was married, he and Pannoninica shared an intimacy, which may or may not have been sexual. For over twenty-five years, their lives were intertwined and inseparable. In a sense, she acted as a surrogate wife.
Black and white footage of them together has a haunting, grainy quality to it, ghost-like anomalies in the world of racial discrimination; Pannonica, the white heiress of a wealthy family dynasty and Monk, the poor black kid from a southern family of tenant farmers- standing together as a contrast to the color-conscious world of the time.
Pannonica’s sister, the Duchess of Devonshire, noted in the film that the Rothschild children were brought up in an isolated and protected environment. They were schooled by private tutors and never went to school with other children. Most of their recreation activities took place on Rothschild grounds such as their in-home museums and elaborate gardens.
Also, Pannonica learned firsthand that “priviledge has no protection,”as Pannonica’s husband lost all the members of his extended family to the Holocaust, as did Pannonica’s mother. In addition, Pannonica’s father suffered from mental illness and committed suicide at age forty, an event that had a great impact on her life.
Perhaps, Rothschild suggests, the melancholy restraints of Monk’s music resonated to the isolation and loss and Nica felt in her own life. The jazzmen Pannonica nurtured gave her life purpose. Pannonica set up a protected environment for them, and they in turn offered love, admiration, and a sense of renewal.
She was a fixture at the jazz clubs, and various jazz musicians dedicated over twenty jazz compositions to her at the time, including Monk’s “Pannonica.”
Rothschild doesn’t falter in telling the long history of Thelonius’s frequent and harrowing bouts with severe depression and his gradual mental decline. He spent the last ten years of his life living in Pannonica’s home and was unable to perform for long stretches of time
At times, The Jazz Baroness meanders aimlessly across time and seems to lack focus. However, jazz aficionados will relish the footage of Monk and his Quartet borrowed from the documentary Straight, No Chasers, and also the glimpse of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing together.
Affecting interviews with Sonny Rollins, Clint Eastwood, and Thelonius’ son, Thelonius Jr., help Rothschild fill in the gaps about Monk’s life and music, the “man who helped you see the music in the music.”
The San Diego Jewish Film Festival will present The Jazz Baroness at AMC La Jolla at 5:00 PM, Thursday, February 18
Forman is a freelance writer based in San Diego