Over the years of listening to jazz, I’d heard about some baroness, some woman who had befriended many a jazz musician. And that Charlie Parker, the man mostly responsible for bebop jazz (hence, all the jazz we listen to today), died in her New York City apartment. So after reading David Kastin’s well researched biography about her, it turns out those things were true. I was surprised by that, figuring that the truth of it would be rather diluted by the murky waters of history. Yes, this is a book review.
But Kastin’s bio goes into far more detail than that, and it turns out that the Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter (whew!) was a singular personality in the history of jazz. I mean, there was, and is, no one else like her. Born (1913) a Rothschild in London, Nica led a rather protected life, particularly after her father, Charles, committed suicide after years of illness brought on by the flu pandemic of the early century. Nica’s eldest sister, Miriam, described life after her father’s death as “all boxed together in a ponderous gilded cage.” Nica also found her mother, Rozsika, to be rather intimidating and emotionally unavailable.
Which set the scene for Nica’s crazy life in jazz. She befriended Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Mary Lou Williams, among many others. But most importantly (and perhaps less well-known), was her relationship with Thelonious Monk. This, of course, caused her no end of misery. During the 1950s, it was simply assumed that any white woman, hanging out with black musicians, black men, was doing so for sex.
Charlie Parker’s career had once again slid towards the bottom, and in early March 1955 he had a shout out loud argument with pianist Bud Powell at the club bearing Parker’s nickname, Birdland. A drunken Powell challenged Parker, “You know Bird, you ain’t shit. You don’t kill me. Man, you ain’t playing shit no more.”
A few nights later, Parker would be dead.
“Bop King Dies in Heiress Flat” the headline of the Daily Mirror screamed. Race and sex played big in the news stories that followed, and the Baroness was never able to shake rumors that she and Parker were getting it on. The truth was that like all of her dealings with musicians, it was strictly platonic.* She truly loved jazz, because there was a freedom that she never experienced growing up. And jazz in New York let her meet and befriend the men who created the music and let her live life the way she never could as a Rothschild, or a baroness. When these musicians needed something, she was there to provide it, because she had the money and the interest to do so. They met at her hotels (where she lived at the Stanhope and then the Bolivar), playing music into the wee hours so often that she was kicked out of both.
According to T.S. (Toot) Monk, Thelonious’ son, Parker knew he could knock on Nica’s door no matter that he had screwed over everyone else he knew. That’s the relationship Nica had with Bird, and the other jazz musicians in her life. “Unfortunately, the motherfucker dropped dead on her,” Toot says in Kastin’s book. “And she’s been paying the price ever since.”
Perhaps the world’s greatest jazz recordings were made by Nica, on those crazed nights, with jazz musicians who simply felt so comfortable they could just drop by her place anytime to converse, eat and play. She made dozens and dozens of them on her own tape recorder. Nica’s family still owns those recordings, and according to them, they will never be made public.
Monk lived with her for months, even though he was married. His wife, Nellie, was quite good friends with Nica and didn’t seem to mind. No woman let’s her husband live with another woman, but Nellie did. It had to have been platonic.
Monk almost died in Nica’s home, where he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He would die 12 days later in a hospital, with wife Nellie in attendance, in 1982.
How loved was she by these many men? The answer truly lies in the music. There are at least 19 songs written about her! If she had simply been a sexual toy, how many songs would there be? Would they be titled Nica’s Dream, Pannonica, Nica’s Day, or A Waltz for the Baroness ? Doubtful.
Kastin’s book often sidebars into background histories of Nica’s family members, and others whom she was connected to. It’s a who’s who of jazz. I found some of the family history less compelling, but if you’re interested in the life of jazz, I can highly recommend reading this book by David Kastin. A mere 229 pages, it’s a quick read and a fascinating one.
Nica’s dream was to live and enjoy her life in jazz, surrounded by the people who made it. In that sense, she did indeed, live the dream. The over-riding question for me is, would I like to have been alive back then, immersed in jazz, and met Nica at some New York club? The answer is a resounding yes. Got one minute and 24 seconds? Check out four songs written for, and about Nica!
* The one exception might be Art Blakey, a real rascal when it came to women. There are online sources that do claim Nica was romantically involved with some of these men, but Kastin denies this.