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- Posted on Nov 25th 2009 5:00PM by Tad Hendrickson
Jazz has always had its fair share of characters. Usually they are musicians, but occasionally nonmusicians enter the story thread. Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter was the pre-eminent patron of the New York City jazz scene back in the '50s and '60s bebop heyday. Though the "bebop baroness" was part of the rich and powerful Rothschild dynasty, she left the genteel life of European castles and servants to hang in New York with jazz musicians, most notably Thelonious Monk, to whom she was a constant companion for the last 28 years of his life.
Her generosity extended to other musicians, as well, providing food, safe haven and money to get pawned instruments back. Her apartment on Manhattan's ritzy Fifth Avenue was an after-hours place to hang out and jam until she was asked to leave after Charlie Parker died there. Many musicians have paid tribute to her generosity with songs dedicated to her in name or spirit (e.g., Monk's 'Pannonica' and 'Bolivar Blues'), but many in her own family had no idea who she was. Enter Hannah Rothschild, a grandniece who met her great-aunt as a young adult after tracking her down after a chance look at her family tree. Hannah went on to a career as a documentary filmmaker and mother, only now (the baroness died in 1988) creating this most personal film about Pannonica the person and the much-speculated relationship between her and Monk. Rather than a review of the film, we'll allow this articulate filmmaker to discuss her documentary in her own words.
What's been the response to the film?
It's been fantastic. If everything I did had this kind of response, life would be very sweet.
What's been the family's response to this film?
It's been great. By the way, there is no massaging of facts. This was a remarkable woman who has every right to hold her head high and be counted among the best of them.
You have done other documentaries. How does this one relate to the others?
This one is very different. This one took so many years, and it's a very personal project. It's about [family] relations and it's a personal detective story. I'm never in the films I make, so this is the first time that I've done that. It's more of a voyage around my family.
Were you comfortable with that approach?
No, not at all. It was only at the end when an editor at the BBC said to me, "You need to put yourself into this film. It feels like there is a glaring omission." I was very resistant, but I think he was right, incidentally. You worry, wondering: Is this indulgent? Is it relevant? Because, after all, the story [of Pannonica] is so incredibly interesting.
Do you dig through your family tree on a regular basis when you are a Rothschild?
[Laughs] Listen, if you lived in England, where it rains all the time, you'd dig through your family tree, too. You have to find some way to amuse yourself. It was there and I was a nosy child, so I was rather intrigued.
Did you go to a museum?
What had happened was that my grandfather had made this tree and sent everybody a bound copy of it. I got my copy and I was looking at it. There were a lot of interesting names, but she happened to be the nearest most interesting name.
But you didn't know who she was. That seems kind of odd, her being a great-aunt to you.
She lived on the other side of the world. She lived in Weehawken[, N.J., in her later years], and I don't want to offend anyone from New Jersey, but it was a tunnel ride or boat ride away. So I don't think anyone went there when they came to New York. You know, I think it was a case of "out of sight out of mind." I don't think they were horrified by her or wanted to disown her, but her lifestyle was so remarkably different than any of the English lot knew about. They went on supporting her lifestyle right up until the end.
Has the film sort of brought her back into the fold, so to speak?
People now know more about her because of the film. Lots of people do talk about her, with great pride, I might add. I don't want to take all the credit for that by doing the film, but some of it.
Many jazz fans know her by reputation, though, so it seems a little ironic that her own family didn't.
You have to be an aficionado in jazz to know who she was. But now I hear my cousins telling stories about her. My dad does that, too.
One of the most effective things done in the film was drawing the parallels between Nica's and Monk's lives before they met.
I wanted to try and work out what it was that attracted them to each other when they met. We all meet lots of people on a daily basis, and yet we don't always connect [in a deep way] with these people. The two of them clearly got on very very well. I decided to celebrate the similarities rather than the differences.
In the film, you describe meeting her, and that story makes her seem like a no-nonsense kind of woman, yet if she was taking care of Monk, it would seem that it would take a great amount of patience because he wasn't stable.
She was very much a cut-to-the-chase kind of woman, straightforward woman. But when she was with Monk, that was the exception. She'd find a reserve of patience that she didn't otherwise have. I've just been reading Robin Kelly's biography on Monk, and although it was done with the full cooperation of the Monk family, and although he's very sympathetic to Monk, he paints a portrait of a really really difficult and selfish genius. He behaved really badly towards a lot of people in his lifetime. I think that more than anything, she was a caregiver. Not only to Monk but also to a lot of musicians, and subsequently a gazillion cats.
Did you visit the house in Weehawken where all the cats lived?
Yes, I did. I went late that night [I met her] after a gig, and I have to say that it was a very disturbing experience. I'm not a huge cat fan. So to be confronted with so many animals was quite disturbing.
What did you think after meeting her?
I was baffled. I couldn't believe it. Here was this old lady; she was an old lady at that point to me because I was 25. She talked in this wonderful throaty, gravelly sort of drawl. She had a cigarette in a very long cigarette holder. We drank scotch out of a teapot. I could not believe that someone that cool could walk the planet. I was completely captivated by her.
You talk about the parallels in Monk's and Pannonica's life before meeting. Are there parallels between you and her?
I don't have a shred of her bravery. I live a sort of boring life -- I'm lucky I have a very lovely life where I live at home with my kids and take them to school. I've spent my life sort of growing into my own character, if you like. I've never had the slightest interest in running away to the other side of the world and living there. That said, when I find things difficult, I remember what she's done and what she stood up for.
Did you grow up in a castle and all that?
No, no. By now the fortune is quite depleted after two world wars and all that. My grandfather used to say that for every one Rothschild that made money, there were 25 to spend it. That said, I've had an incredibly lucky and privileged life, and I'm very grateful for it.
Coming from a family like yours, where privacy was very important, how does becoming a documentary filmmaker enter the equation?
Well, the founder of the Rothschild Bank said that women were only fit to become archivists or bookkeepers. I guess in some way as a documentarian filmmaker I'm an archivist. So strangely I'm fulfilling the old rogue's dictum. But I was brought up to work and I was lucky enough to find work that I love.
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