the jazz baroness

On Sunday I attended a screening of the documentary “The Jazz Baroness” at the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center, the kickoff event of the Washington Jewish Music Festival.

I can’t really remember what motivated me to buy a ticket: I’m not a music person, so I generally don’t even skim the program listings for this annual event. But something must have intrigued me about this documentary.

The film was written, directed, edited, and produced by Hannah Rothschild, whose great-aunt Pannonica, known to everyone as “Nica,” had a long friendship with Thelonious Monk, from when they met in Paris in 1954 until his death (at her house in Weehawken) in 1982.

By all accounts, they were not lovers, although Monk’s son tells the filmmaker that he believes Nica to have been “in love” with his dad. Indeed, both Nica and Monk were married when they met; Nica’s husband, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, divorced her in 1956, at least in part because of her carrying on with New York jazz musicians.

The relationship seems to have been more one of patronage and caregiving on the part of Nica, who simply adored Monk’s music. In the film, she (voiced by the incomparable Helen Mirren) tells the story of the first time she heard it. In 1951, she stopped by a friend’s apartment in New York on the way to the airport to catch a flight to Mexico, where she was living at the time with de Koenigswarter and her children. He played for her “‘Round Midnight,” and she was completely captivated. She’d never heard anything like it, and she made her friend play the record over and over again. She missed her flight back to Mexico, and shortly thereafter, she moved to New York.

For his part, Monk was a musical genius but suffered from fairly severe mental health issues (undiagnosed in his lifetime, but later speculated to be manic despression, bipolar disorder, and/or schizophrenia). Several friends and his long-time manager also testified to his use of marijuana and heroin. Another friend explained that Nica, together with Monk’s wife, Nellie, shouldered the burden of caring for Monk, as his behavior was too much for one person to manage. Nica even took the rap for Monk when they were arrested for marijuana possession on the way to a gig in Delaware.

Overall, I liked the film. I certainly learned a lot, and I *loved* that Monk’s music played all throughout the film. You really can’t go wrong with his bebop. A few small items distracted me: Hannah Rothschild’s voice sounds remarkably like Helen Mirren’s, so at times during voiceovers it was hard to tell whose experience was being narrated. And a few of the interviewees were only identified during their first appearance in the film, leaving me to wonder in later scenes on what authority they were speaking. (Compounding this problem is that many of the Rothchilds interviewed were old, wrinkly, and therefore practically indistinguishable, women.)

My other complaint concerned the filmmaker’s attempt to show parallels between Nica’s and Monk’s lives. I don’t think that her search was in vain, but when she likened Monk’s upbringing — the son of a sharecropper in rural North Carolina — to Nica’s childhood — a member of one of Europe’s most prominent dynasties — she strained my credulity.

Mostly, though, I very much enjoyed the story of this “beautiful friendship.”

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