Playing and Living Between the Keys
04.17.09 · Sonia Greteman
In celebration of jazz appreciation month, I had the privilege of the viewing the U.S. premiere of the documentary “The Jazz Baroness” at the Tallgrass Film Festival.
The film, narrated by actress Helen Mirren, was directed by Hannah Rothschild, great niece of the British heiress Baroness Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, widely known as Nica.
It charts the tumultuous birth of bebop in the late ‘50s.
In this pre-civil-rights era the mere sight of a white woman with black men was cause for scandal. Yet, Nica was routinely seen in the company of impoverished jazz musicians – Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and other now-immortalized musical geniuses. She even opened her Fifth Avenue apartment to them. Her home was dubbed the Cathouse for the cool two-legged cats who crashed there alongside scores of actual felines. (Polaroids she took and wishes she extracted from these jazz greats became the basis for a posthumous bestseller and photography exhibit.)
The Lost Story
The movie emphasizes the monumental dichotomy of two lives: Monk, the social-pariah son of dirt-poor African American sharecroppers, and Nica, the aristocrat born into Europe’s greatest banking dynasty. Their mutual love for jazz took them from Harlem to hell and back again. It’s been said that many musicians play the white keys, or the black keys, but that Monk played between the keys – the cracks. Nica said, “He could make you see the music inside the music.”
Nica was beloved in jazz circles. This unwavering fan, outspoken advocate and patron gave them money when needed, drove musicians to their gigs (or doctor) in her Bebop Bentley, and even took the rap for marijuana possession to keep Monk from losing his cabaret license. In return these struggling musicians honored her with their affection and songs of dedication.
When Nica died in 1988 she asked to have her ashes strewn in New York “Round Midnight,” in homage to the Monk composition that introduced her to his music. And forever changed her life.