The Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter was named for a butterfly. Or, more accurately, a moth. Her great niece Hannah Rothschild makes this discovery while making the documentary The Jazz Baroness, in which she traces Nica’s devotion to jazz music and several musicians, including Thelonius Monk. Strikingly and not a little strangely, this morsel about the moth is delivered as if it is a great discovery: Hannah visits with entomologist Gaden Robinson of London’s Natural History Museum, who locates a sample on a pin amid hundreds of others, and wonders how and why Nica might have preserved the myth of the butterfly. “Perhaps,” Hannah muses, “It suited her not to give everything away, to preserve the mystery.”
Nica’s mystery has been well preserved — despite the notoriety of her friendships with so many black American artists. Raised as a proper Rothschild, “guarded day and night by a regiment” of nurses, governess, maids, and butlers, Nica and her siblings endured strict schedules, high expectations, and what her sister Miriam recalls as “dull food… immaculately cooked.” The film suggests an incipient rebellion with reenacted scenes of the child Nica (Clemency Brookfield) poking around in her father’s collection of stuffed creatures — penguins and bugs and elephants in glass cases. Still, she did her familial duty, marrying the Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, a stickler for rules, a banker, and a widower 10 years her senior, with whom she had five children. Jewish like his wife, he was a Free French hero during WWII and she followed him to Africa, where she served as an ambulance driver, earning medals and the rank of lieutenant.
As Nica’s life proceeds mostly according to a wealthy family’s plan, the film shows snapshots and archival footage showing the approximate experience of young Thelonious Monk, born to sharecroppers in North Carolina. He was, says Stanley Crouch, “a country Negro,” The film cuts between shots of servants and waltzes in the Rothschilds’ home, and impoverished children on porches in the American South. When his mother Barbara moved the kids to New York in 1922, Monk’s horizon changed. “Unlike me,” Rothschild writes in a letter read here by Helen MIrren, “Thelonious was a genius.”
According to the film — made for the BBC and airing 29 November and during December on HBO — Nica Rothschild was in New York and on her way back to her family when she heard a record, Monk’s ‘Round Midnight. “I couldn’t believe my ears,” she writes. At the time, remembers Sonny Rollins, be-bop artists “didn’t accept a lot of things that jazz musicians were forced to accept,” and affected a change “from the show business aspect of this great music.” They were demanding, he says, “to be accepted as full-fledged human beings, not just talented artists.”
When Nica and Monk met in 1954 in Paris, they formed a deep and abiding friendship; they were reportedly rarely apart until his death in 1982; she and his wife Nellie worked together as he became increasingly depressed and unstable, and was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenic. In fact, as the movie notes, Monk spent the last 10 years of his life in her New Jersey home, the so-called Cathouse, along with her many cats. While it repeats information from Charlotte Zwerin’s 1988 documentary on Monk, Straight, No Chaser, Rothschild’s version is structured as her own pursuit of truth, or at least some understanding of how her great aunt changed her own life so completely once she met Monk, Charlie Parker, and other artists for who she served as patron. (Hannah Rothschild concludes that Nica and Monk maintained a platonic relationship.)
Thelonious Monk Jr. remembers that Nica embarked on frequent “mercy missions to save musicians’ lives in every way,” whether this meant recovering a musician’s instrument from a pawn shop, buying food or paying rent. She looked after people she admired, her efforts crossing class and race lines. The film recounts one famous incident, when she was driving Charlie Rouse and Monk to a gig in Delaware and thy were stopped by the police. She took the legal responsibility — she was a white woman driving two black men, and the authorities found $10 worth of marijuana in the car — and was sentenced to three years in prison before her lawyer got her off “on a technicality.”
The film’s most effective sequences are almost abstract, shots of New York streets — then and now — overlaid with Monk’s music. Though, Hannah Rothschild narrates, Monk’s “first language was silence,” he and other artists were moved to write music in homage to her, including Monk’s own “Bolivar Blues” and “Coming on Hudson,” Kenny Drew’s “Blues for Nica,” Art Blakey and Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” and Kenny Dorham’s “Tonica.” The music honored her, as she honored the music, and especially the men who made it. If some of the details of her life remain “a mystery,” that seems apt.