Book Review: Hannah Rothschild – The Baroness

Hannah Rothschild – The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild
(Virago, 319pp.; £20. Book Review by Chris Parker)

Those who have seen Hannah Rothschild’s documentary (The Jazz Baroness, recently shown on BBC Four, and available with extra material on DVD) on her great-aunt, Pannonica (Nica) de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild), will note the absence of ‘Jazz’ from the title of her book on the same subject.

The absence denotes a wider canvas: whereas Nica’s immersion in New York’s jazz scene from the 1950s onwards (and her relationship with Thelonious Monk in particular) was the focus of the film, this book, as its subtitle suggests, is a more wide-ranging study, and a touchingly personal one at that.

‘Rebellious’ Nica certainly was: born to a fabulously wealthy family (who desperately wanted a boy for dynastic reasons) and brought up by governesses in a closeted world of privilege and luxury, she married a Baron, had children by him and lived in a chateau in France before WW2 intervened and saw her serve with the Free French Army; in the late 1940s, however, she was exposed (by her brother Victor’s piano mentor, Teddy Wilson) to ‘ ’Round Midnight’ and never looked back, dedicating the rest of her life to jazz and the men and women (she was a close friend of Mary Lou Williams) who played it. ‘Search’ is also an important word in this subtitle: the ‘real’ Nica inevitably eludes the biographer, even a family-based one, remaining an enigma about whom Amiri Baraka can say: ‘She was a wealthy dilettante and a groupie. That is the kindest thing I could say …’ while Archie Shepp says: ‘She was a woman who was ahead of her time. She took a stand when it wasn’t popular to do so … she impressed my whole community with a sense of democracy’ and Curtis Fuller remembers: ‘She was our pride and she was our light; she gave us a light because she had status.’

The basic facts are known to all jazz aficionados: Nica befriended and helped large numbers of New York’s jazz community, from Art Blakey to Bud Powell, Horace Silver to Charles Mingus; she became a close friend of Monk, in particular, even taking a drug rap for him and providing him with somewhere to live in his later years; Charlie Parker died in her apartment. What is less clear is her psychological motivation for so thoroughly confounding social and familial expectations, but the book is perhaps most interesting when speculating on this very matter. Nica’s father’s depression and suicide, her horror at what she saw as the straitjacket of upper-class life, her family’s experience of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust: all are carefully examined by this fascinating and deeply personal study, and – like all successful biographies – The Baroness, with its wealth of intriguing detail about such disparate social milieux, merely whets the reader’s appetite for more, not only about Monk (fortunately, there is an exhaustive biography of him by Robin D. G. Kelley available: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, JR Books) but also about the Rothschilds, the Free French Army, the post-bop jazz world etc.

A lucid, clear-eyed account of a charismatic, self-willed but ultimately elusive figure, this absorbing book should be enjoyed by anyone with even a passing interest in any of these subjects.

The Jazz Baroness Website

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. “Good for jazz” that Hannah Rothschild is getting this book widely known outside jazz circles, such as by being interviewed at Hay Festival on 9 June and also on Cerys Matthews show next Sunday morning.
    She'll also be doing a reading together with music by Monk at the Vortex in September.

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