Pannonica de Kœnigswarter was the friend and muse of the American jazz world. By supporting musicians, exploding codes, cadences, and 'proper' tones, Pannonica was driven by an endless appetite for improvisation; she helped spurn the entire bop revolution. Here, Qwest TV takes a look back at the extraordinary life of an enlightened adventurer whose ear, passion and intuition gave bebop the means to exist.

Pannonica, “call me Nica”

Once upon a time, someone asked Thelonious Monk this question: “What is jazz?” His answer: “New York, man!”

When Pannonica de Kœnigswarter moved to New York in 1951, she had not yet met the one who would become her best friend: Thelonious Monk, father and high priest of be-bop, who freed Sun Ra, Coltrane and all the others from the standards of American popular music. He did this through his pummeling touch and infinite harmonic-chromatic freedom. Back then, when she was on her way to join her French diplomat husband (Baron Jules Kœnigswarter) at the Mexico City airport, she only knew “Round Midnight,” which she had listened to twenty times in a row at the home of her pianist friend Teddy Wilson in 1949. She might not have known it then, but Pannonica would go on to miss her plane.

Born in 1913, Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild (from British branch of the family) showed very early signs of a hectic life. Responding to the Appeal of June 18, 1940, the young couple joined the Free French Forces; she flew a bomber, carried medical equipment aboard an old cargo ship, fought back against attacks, and flew to Equatorial Africa, where she served as a commentator on Radio Brazzaville… while also having five children.

Swing! While she resisted, Monk, Gillespie, and Parker were breaking down jazz under the influence of predecessors like Coleman Hawkins and Art Tatum, whom the young woman already loved. Once the war was won, her husband became a diplomat. Pannonica got bored, and they split up. Her family cut her off. But she had a dream, a mission: jazz before everything else. The Baroness dropped her luggage at the Stanhope on 5th Avenue and trawled the clubs: Five Spots, Birdland, Village Vanguard, Minton’s Playhouse, and more. “I flew away,” she wrote to her great pianist friend Mary Lou Williams.

The spark happened in Paris one night at the Salle Pleyel. Invited to the 3rd edition of the Salon du Jazz in June 1954, Thelonious Monk performed in France for the first time. He was drunk on cognac. The reception is mixed, some would say “mediocre,” but Pannonica was dazzled by the audacity and genius of his music. She even heard “music in the music.” All Mary Lou Williams had to do was make the introductions: “Call me Nica.”

Pannonica, Friend, Muse, Patron

“Nica was an integral part of the emotional survival of so many musicians! She gave them the self-confidence and the credibility they really needed. They loved her for that,” says Toot Monk, the son, in Nica’s Dream, an excellent biography of the Baroness by David Kastin. While the Baroness dedicated her generous fortune to bebop — an unexpected patron for many — her support far exceeded the material.

Without complaining, she fussed over Coleman Hawkins, an epileptic saxophonist whose fridge she filled when he refused to go to the hospital. She also helped Barry Harris start his jazz school and went in search of the pianist Bud Powell, who was utterly depressive, when he disappeared for several days on the streets of New York.

Some of them lived at her house for various periods of time. Others died there. On May 12, 1955, Charlie Parker, who was isolated, addicted and very sick, died in the big black armchair of his suite at the Stanhope; for the hotel, the line had been crossed: an emancipated white woman, the racket, the blacks, a dead man. The press picked up on the scandal and the situation went wrong … even Mingus suspected her of the worst!

Pannonica upped and left to the Bolivar, where night after night, the best jazzmen in the world and of the moment invited themselves while Monk dedicated “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues” to her. At night, as an essential witness to a golden age in the process of hatching, Pannonica shot the intimacy, sleep, and laughter behind the scenes with a Polaroid.

Nica was also engaged in the arts. For a time, she was the agent for Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. She dressed them up and negotiated dates just as much as she pushed Monk to reform a quartet after Coltrane’s departure and landed him a residence at Five Spots that would lead to memorable recording sessions. A talented painter who was crazy for abstract art—she experimented with “acrylic, milk, scotch, and perfumes,” according to producer Ross Russell — the Baroness of Bop also painted the cover of Portrait of Thelonious for Bud Powell in 1965. And then she gave Monk, whom she loved a little more than the others, a sumptuous Steinway on which the pianist composed some of his masterpieces, including the famous “Pannonica” with Roach and Rollins, combined with the celesta. Here, the fascination, love, and respect were mutual. Donald Byrd (“Three Wishes”), Barry Harris (“Inca”), Art Blakey (“Nica’s Dream”) and Gigi Gryce (“Nica’s Tempo”), all elevated their Nica to the level of a standard by arranging glorious solos and tempos for her, partly compiled on Pannonica: A Tribute to Pannonica by Cristal Records.

Pannonica, a woman of combat

Pannonica asked the musicians she met for three wishes, gathered in 2006 in Les Musiciens de jazz et leurs trois vœux (ed. Buchet-Chastel). Three hundred would submit their responses: “Love God more,” says Mary Lou Williams, “Have a tireless freshness in my music … and three times my sexual power today,” dreams Coltrane, “Live in a world where we wouldn’t need a passport,” says Gillespie, “See the day jazz is recognized,” hopes Johnny Griffin. “Be white,” quips Miles Davis. For the New York Times, Sonny Rollins described Nica’s courage in standing up to the racism of the 1950s at any cost, even when she and Monk were spat on during a tour in the south. “With the Baroness, we felt like real human beings, we felt good. She was a heroic woman.”

For all the racial tensions that divided this America in chiaroscuro, the social abyss that was supposed to keep her away from these geniuses of the slums, and the rejection of her own family that didn’t understand what a brilliant heiress could be doing protecting, esteeming, and driving unstable junkies through the New York night at the wheel of her pearl gray Bentley, Nica didn’t give in. A member of the musicians’ union, she campaigned against cabaret cards and fought against the hostility of the police, who were not very tolerant of diversity. But Nica went even further. In 1955, she, Monk and Charlie Rouse were arrested on the Delaware highway for possession of marijuana, “just enough to roll a stick” it seems; the Baroness took responsibility for the crime and three years in prison, before being acquitted. She supposedly yelled, “Don’t ruin his hands!” to defend Monk. It was a true vocation that pushed Archie Shepp to see her as “a fighter, an avant-garde woman who took risks, a feminist who fought to be herself and for real social change.”

Pannonica would fight her greatest battle, however, for Monk’s love, who wished only “that my music be successful, that my family be happy, and that I have a great friend like you.” He got his wishes. For 28 years, Pannonica supported Monk, his mental disorders, his music, and his family until the end of his slow “fade to black,” as Laurent de Wilde put it. He died at her home in Weehawken in 1982, a refuge and free zone for both the cat community and the hundred or so cats that curled up there.

Hannah Rothschild, a grand-niece documentary filmmaker, analyses “the passionate attempt to dignify Thelonious’s life” as “her way of repairing an injustice”; Pannonica’s father also suffered from bipolar disorders, committing suicide when she was young. The most credible thing is that Nica truly loved music, the snap zang blubaps, the freedom of jazz, the sound’s modernity, and the men’s dignity. When she died in 1988, the same year Clint Eastwood’s Bird came out, her ashes were scattered over the Hudson River. In accordance with her wishes, it was ‘round midnight.

To see more amazing jazz concerts and documentaries, both from the archives and from recent years, head over to Qwest TV now!

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union