Written by Louise Levy
Recently, I had lunch with Robert Vale, a presenter at Fine Music. He was telling me about a woman who fell in love with jazz and became known affectionately as ‘The Jazz Baroness’. Listening to the story I was very impressed by Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild’s life. Her nickname was Nica.
I went home wanting to know more about the English Baroness and wondering what happened to Nica on a whim.
Online I found out that she was born in December 1913 and grew up in a privileged, wealthy, mansion called Waddesdon Manor. At 22 the Baroness married a French diplomat, Baron Jules Adolphe de Kœnigswarter, and they had 2 children before World War 2.
During WW2 she worked in North Africa with her husband; and after the war they had another 3 children. A few years later, her marriage was over and she would take holidays away from her husband.
One time, she was in New York about to travel to where her husband was working in Mexico. The story goes, that a friend told her to listen to the song Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk, before she left New York. She sat there and listened, again and again and again, listening about 20 times, and missing her flight. She decided to stay in New York permanently.
I was curious about the reason for Nica relocated to New York. I wondered if the song ignited a reaction in Nica and finally pushed her forward to another different path. If you haven’t heard the song, go online, listen then read the words and make your own decision about the meaning of it.
In New York, she started driving her Rolls Royce to jazz clubs late at night, listening to musicians. She met many jazz players including Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, and Charlie Rouse.
She listening to Charlie Parker, the man that evolution jazz saxophone and developed a new style of jazz called bebop.
There were many times Nica would help musicians, including buying groceries, paying bills or rent, or pay the pawn shop for a musician’s instrument. She also looked after cats.
Sometimes there was a scandal for Nica. One time, Charlie Parker, who was a difficult person to be around, knocked on Nica’s apartment door. He was not well, and he knew that Nica would help. Unfortunately, Charlie refused to go to the hospital, and a few days later Charlie passed away on Nica’s couch.
Living in New York, she continued to search for a meeting with Monk, who was a composer, pianist, and bandleader.
In 1954, Nica flew to Paris and asked pianist Mary Lou Williams to introduce her to Monk, which was the first time they met.
Once back in New York they did not meet again for a couple of years. Nica had always thought that Monk was a genius artist. So, when they did meet again, they became inseparable. Monk’s wife, Nellie and Nica helped to sustain Monk, and enabled him to create special, wonderful, magic songs and music.
Over 20 songs were written and dedicated to Nica from various jazz players. They include Monk’s “Ba-lue Bolivar” and “Pannonica”, Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream”, Gigi Gryce’s “Nica’s Tempo”, Freddie Redd’s “Nica Steps Out”, Sonny Clark’s “Nica” and Kenny Drew’s “Blues for Nica”.
When I was looking online for research on Nica I found a podcast called “Tales From No Man’s Land” from Frank Turner. For each 13 songs, Turner and a guest discussion how and why the Turner created the song. Number 4 is the song “Nica”.
Jumoke Fashola, a BBC journalist, presenter and jazz singer spoke to Turner about Nica. It was a fascinating hour. Before Turner sang “Nica”, he admits that it is not a “jazz” song, but it could be. And suggested that Fashola, would sing “Nica” as a jazz song.
If that happens, that would be a fascinating song to hear.