Louise Levy looks at the intriguing story of Pannonica Rothschild,
who left her illustrious family to become a jazz patron in New York
Recently, I had lunch with Robert Vale, a presenter at Fine Music. He told me about a woman who fell in love with jazz and became affectionately known as ‘The Jazz Baroness’. Listening to the story I was very impressed by Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild’s life, and went home wanting to know more about what had happened to her.
Online I found out that the Baroness’ nickname
was Nica, she was born in December 1913, and had grown up in a privileged, wealthy family at a mansion called Waddesdon Manor. At the age of 22 Nica married a French diplomat, Baron Jules Adolphe deKœnigswarter, producing two children before the advent of World War II.
During the war she worked in North Africa with her husband. After hostilities had ended, they had another three children, but a few years later her marriage was over, and she would take holidays away from her family. One time, the story goes, she was in New York about to travel to where her husband was working in Mexico, when a friend told her to listen to the song Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk. She sat there and listened repeatedly, about 20 times, missing her flight
and deciding to stay in New York permanently.
I was curious about the reason for Nica’s decision
to relocate to New York. I wondered if the song had ignited a reaction in her, finally pushing her to follow a different path. If you haven’t heard the song, find the lyrics online, listen, and make your own decision about its meaning.
In New York, she started driving her pale blue Bentley to jazz clubs late at night, listening to musicians and meeting many jazz players including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, and Charlie Rouse. She befriended Charlie Parker, the man who helped evolve the jazz saxophone and revolutionise jazz with a new style called Bebop.
Many times, Nica would help musicians financially,
buying groceries, paying bills, rent or the pawn shop for a musician’s instrument, even looking after their cats!
One time, Charlie Parker, who was a difficult person to be around, knocked on Nica’s apartment door. He was not well, but he knew that Nica would help. Unfortunately, Charlie refused to go to the hospital, and a few days later died of a heart attack on Nica’s couch.
From her base in New York, she continued to try and arrange for a meeting with Thelonius Monk, who was a composer, pianist, and bandleader. In 1954, Nica flew to Paris and asked pianist Mary Lou Williams to introduced her to Monk, meeting him for the first time.
Nica had always thought that Monk was a genius, so that when they did meet again in New York after a couple of years, they became inseparable. Together with Monk’s wife Nellie, Nica helped to sustain Monk, and enabled him to create his special, wonderful, magic songs and music.