on 29 May 2016
Nica, the jazz baroness, grew up in a sheltered pastoral world far from the mean streets of American jazz. She was a British Rothschild, her family rich, powerful, influential. Nannies, servants, governesses and chauffeurs attended her when she was a child. She didn’t go to school or mix with other children outside her social class. The crystal palace that housed her was meant to make her a snob, even if it was never called snobbery, elevation a way of keeping her above the grime and nastiness of the world.
Escape from the gilded cage for her was to the natural world. She loved flowers, gardens, birds, butterflies. She also loved to sketch and paint, delighting in the beauty around her, sensitive to its details and nuances. In short, she was a sensualist, in literal touch with things, born with the heart of an artist. So without trying, just by being herself, she became the black sheep of the family. Though she may have tried to conform early on, in the end she couldn’t be what they wanted her to be.
She was christened Kathleen Annie Pannonica (though called Nica by everyone) on 10 December 1913 in London, the youngest daughter of Charles Rothschild (1877-1923) and his Hungarian wife Rozsika Edle von Wertheimstein. Her parents had met, exotically enough, in the Carpathian Mountains where her father, an avid amateur entomologist, was collecting butterflies. The name Pannonica comes from a rare moth her father snared and brought home, but she would always say she was named after a butterfly, which surely sounds more romantic. The name suited her poetically, as she would travel and live in many places: Britain, France, Africa, Mexico and New York, to name a few.
Jazz must have found its way to her in Britain when she was reaching young adulthood in the late 1920s. The fledgling American Empire was spreading, and with it the country’s culture. Like gospel and the blues, jazz was born from the black experience in the Deep South, America’s cultural greatness built by the sons and daughters of slaves. This is called irony.
She loved what she heard. Probably the improvisational nature of jazz, the urge to musically experiment and explore, appealed to her. Though most jazz musicians play together, there’s something inherently freeing in the individuality the music encourages. So she was naturally drawn to it, as if it expressed something deep and profound in her own spirit. It’s as though jazz became a part of her and she would never waver in her love and admiration for this great American art.
New York City became a place of refuge for her, a liberating place where anything seemed possible and permitted. She would come to the city often. She loved the smoky jazz joints, the street slang and bohemian vibe, the music and musicians, the coolness of it all. She was hip and cool herself. She was no poser. At first she amused the predominantly black jazz musicians, this proper English lady who spoke in a foreign language they could barely understand — the King’s English, posh and polished. Who was she and what was she doing here? It took a while for the Old and New worlds to embrace one another.
But this eventually happened through love, that potent human emotion. She loved the sound of jazz and everything that went into it, jazz for her representing freedom of thought, expression, experience.
She first heard “‘Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk sometime in the late 1940s. Some songs are so personal you swear to yourself the musician wrote and recorded it for you alone. It’s a conceit, an irrationality that feels true. Without you in the world this song could not exist. Nica felt this way about “Round Midnight”. It changed her life. Teddy Wilson, a jazz musician and friend of hers, played the record for her one day in his flat in New York City. Nica would later describe the encounter in almost transcendental terms:
“I couldn’t believe my ears. I had never heard anything remotely like it. I made Teddy play it 20 times in a row.”
She missed a flight that evening. She was due to fly back to Mexico to reunite with her French husband and three young children there. Instead, she stayed on in New York. She couldn’t leave the music, the scene, the feeling there. Years later, though she always loved and remained loyal to her children, her husband divorced her, unable to cope with her independence and waywardness. The music critic Nat Hentoff once asked her how her marriage had gone wrong. She was matter of fact about it, saying jazz was part of the cause:
“My husband liked military drum music. He hated jazz and he used to break my records when I was late for dinner. I was frequently late for dinner.”
She finally met Thelonious in 1954, but not in New York. Nica was flamboyant and loved grand gestures. New York would be too easy, too expected and predictable for a first meeting. It must be some place special and different. It was. It was Paris. She loved France and the French. Unlike the English, who barely understood the soul of jazz, the French were aficionados of the art. They loved it. American jazz musicians were almost gods to them. And it helped too that the French were colourblind. Soul had nothing to do with skin tint. It went way beyond anything you could see with your eyes.
So she flew over for the very first European gig Monk would make. She knew someone who knew him well. She would be allowed to go backstage after the performance. She did. They drank champagne and fell into each other’s company from the start. She stayed in Paris for one week and they saw each other every night. Thereafter, for the next 28 years until Monk’s death in 1982, they were hardly separable, jazz the great thing that entwined their souls.
Some people even now don’t believe their love was platonic. How could people this passionate remain dispassionate? I’m not sure. Nor do I actually care. Thelonious loved his wife Nellie. She stood by him through thick and thin. Nica loved Nellie for this. Nellie is how Nica would have been in her shoes. Mutual love and respect consequently grew up between the two women. Thelonious had two spiritual wives.
Nica loved Thelonious for who he was, what he did, how he touched her. The mystery of it all was enigmatic to her too. Asked to explain her love to someone, she offered this:
“What can I say? If there are seven wonders in the world, then I think Thelonious is the eighth. He helped me to see the music inside the music, to see possibilities in life and ways of living I had never dreamed of.”
He was something magical, special, irreplaceable to her. And like Nellie, she came to devote her life to his genius.
During the Second World War her husband Jules was fighting with the Free French in Africa. She joined him there, doing what she could for intelligence to help the Allies win the war. Later, after the war, reflecting on her time in Africa, she said:
“I never sorted out the role of the freedom fighter, but once I got here to New York I saw that an awful lot of help was needed, so I just couldn’t stand by and watch.”
Yes, so much help was needed. Jazz was great but it touched only a minority and didn’t sell. The musicians were poor, black, marginalised. Many were addicts (drugs, tobacco, alcohol). Charlie Parker, Monk’s great partner in bebop, was among these and one of the worst. He couldn’t cope. He courted death. He was a genius too, like Monk, but it all became too much. His thick skin thinned and he self destructed. He died, in fact, at Nica’s, a fact that became grist for tabloid sensationalism.
Jealousy, envy, insecurity: certain members of the media establishment wore their sense of inferiority to the baroness on their sleeves. They couldn’t handle that she was regal, almost royal, that they were hacks, that this music they barely understood was intelligently appreciated by her, that she consorted with street musicians no better than pimps and addicts. They hated her for what they couldn’t be, resented her passion, imagination, courage.
Why did she do what she did? Because, in fact, she was needed and she didn’t mind the condition. A long interview with Thelonious Monk, Jr. in the film reveals what Nica was about. Able to do good, she enjoyed the power of doing it. The younger Monk says:
“I’d be hanging out with Nica and we’d get in the car.”
This car, incidentally, was always a Bentley, as she never downplayed her status and good taste. The diamonds, fur coats and long cigarette holders were part of the look too. She would not compromise her elegance even when driving through ghettos filled with tenements. She always held her head high.
“I can’t tell you how many mercy missions [she made] to save musicians lives in every way you can imagine. Whether we were going to a pawn shop to retrieve a guy’s instrument, or going to buy groceries because someone didn’t have food, or going to a rental office to pay somebody’s rent because they were about to be thrown out on the street, or going to a hospital to visit someone because they didn’t have anyone else to visit them. The list goes on and on…Every aspect of human existence I saw musicians deal with I saw them lean on Nica and I saw Nica respond.”
With Monk she did everything: bought him pianos, gave him shelter, paid his bills. In the last 10 years of his life when he was too ill to perform in public, Monk lived with her and dozens of her cats in her house in Weehawken in nearby New Jersey (the same house where Marlene Dietrich used to stay when the film director Josef von Sternberg owned it). Monk called her place The Cat House.
Nica confesses in the film that she wasn’t a crier. She’d let out her emotion in other ways. But in early 1982 she had to return to England briefly for some reason which she does not state. She hadn’t been separated from Monk in 12 years. But before leaving the house she was in tears. They kept flowing and she cried all the way back to Britain on the plane. It’s as if she knew Monk was leaving her. He said to her:
“Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you come back.”
But she kept on crying.
Thelonious Sphere Monk died on 17 February 1982, aged 64, at the house in New Jersey, a cool black cat surrounded by dozens of other felines. Nica was still in England at the time, her premonition right.
Six years later Nica herself died, aged 74, on 30 November 1988. She wasn’t ill but entered a hospital for routine heart surgery, for a non-life threatening bypass, as she had been a chain smoker for many years. But complications the doctors couldn’t deal with arose.
Her will stated that she wanted her ashes scattered over the Hudson River. She even specified the time — ‘round midnight, death adding further commentary on the life.
All the beauty of her life is revealed to us here in this loving documentary made by her great niece, Hannah Rothschild, a writer and independent filmmaker. Many people in Hannah’s extended clan would not talk to her about the black sheep in the family. Perhaps they didn’t know what to say, or were too embarrassed by what they thought they might say. In the end their opinions, or lack of them, don’t matter very much. We have the music to know what she felt. She said Monk made her see the music inside the music, a statement perhaps too enigmatic for many to identify with. If you have to explain it, it’s probably not worth explaining. Being hip and cool is being free, a condition that requires no explanations.