Bright Lights Film Journal

When Thelonious Met Pannonica: Hannah Rothschild’s The Jazz Baroness

“The Jazz Baroness goes beyond the barrel of stereotypes the screeching monkeys of society use against the intricate gusts of life swirling about us.” Really!

Say you’re a Rothschild. Just say you are. And the whole Rothschild thing, well, it’s getting you down. So suppose you split for America, to hang out in Manhattan with all the hip young musicians, living in fancy hotels and running around town in a shiny new Bentley. Sound good?

Sorry, dudes and dudettes, but it’s been done. And now rebel Rothschild daughter Hannah Rothschild has made a documentary about her naughty auntie, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, so that’s been done too.

The result, The Jazz Baroness, really does go beyond the, well, you know, the monkeys and all, alluded to in the introductory quote from Stanley Crouch, who does get carried away at times. The film, a BBC production recently broadcast on HBO and hopefully headed for disc, tells the story of Pannonica, both a real-life baroness and a real-life Rothschild, who spent the fifties, sixties, and seventies hanging out in the Manhattan bop scene, most notably in the company of jazz great Thelonious Monk.

For the most part, we get a straight-ahead, talking heads style documentary, with not nearly as much archival footage as one would like, but if you are interested in the fifties bop scene, you will want to see this film.1 There is one very clever bit, though quite tangential to the main story — a clip from an old high-brow BBC quiz show with some dude answering rapid-fire questions about the Rothschilds — “Which Rothschild lent Disraeli four million pounds for the purchase of Suez Canal shares?” “Lionel!”2 “Which part of the House of Commons procedure prevented Lionel, elected MP in 1847, from taking his seat for 11 years?” “The Oath of Abjuration!”3

We then flash forward to the present day, as musicians are asked questions about Pannonica: “How many cats did Pannonica have?” “206!” “What did Monk think of the cats?” “He hated them!”

Yes, Pannonica did have 206 cats, and so we see that there were several sides to Pannonica. She was the product of the very highest European society, she was a passionate lover of jazz, she was a lady bountiful to struggling jazz musicians, retrieving pawned instruments, paying for grocery bills, doctors’ bills, dentists’ bills (extremely important to horn players), and the like, and she was a bit of a diva, always traveling with a small entourage, and, increasingly in her old age, a bit dotty, living in a Weehawken NJ pad,4 with to-die-for views of the Big Apple though stinking strongly of cat shit.

The film is as much about Monk as it is about Pannonica. Thelonious was a composer and pianist of genius, but he was also “catatonic,” as Pannonica’s brother, Lord Rothschild, once put it. It took the combined efforts of wife Nellie, mistress/nursemaid/midwife/patron Pannonica, and a succession of devoted agents, record producers, jazz critics, and others to keep poor Thelonious upright. Pannonica was so devoted to Monk that she was ready to take a drug rap for him when he was close to being busted for possession in New Castle, Delaware. Fortunately, Delaware is the stomping grounds for the du Ponts, a family that knows a thing or two about handling runaway heiresses, and Pannonica walked.

The film probably overstates the “romance” between Thelonious and Pannonica. Pannonica was forty, and Monk in his early thirties, when they met. Pannonica had lots and lots of friends, and was close to many musicians other than Monk. In the early fifties she gave drummer Art Blakey a Cadillac, something she didn’t do often. However, the next year she gave Monk a new Buick,5 of which he was enormously proud, and also bought a Steinway baby grand, mostly for his use, though she kept it in her own place. In his later years, when Monk was scarcely functional, she took him into her house and cared for him for ten years.

The stand-outs among the talking heads in the film are two relatives — Thelonious, Jr., wonderfully warm and smart, and Pannonica’s sister, Dame Miriam, who lived until 2005 and who describes the special heaven/hell of growing up a Rothschild — luxury piled on top of luxury, the absurd attempt to surround oneself with things absolutely no one else has.6 There are shots of 1930s debutantes dressed in identical white dresses, swaying in some sort of obscure mating ritual, and then parting to allow struggling servants to muscle in a two hundred-pound cake — somebody’s birthday, apparently.

Bottom line? Get a jump on the screeching society monkeys and see this film.

HBO has a Jazz Baroness website here, while there is a separate website for the film itself here, offering links to Monk sites that are not always well maintained but do offer a lot of information if you work a little.

Afterwords

I first heard Thelonious when I was sixteen — “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” I realized at once that this was someone worth listening to. Almost fifty years later, I’m still at it. At my own blog, I wrote a long “Salute to Thelonious” CDs here. At that time, I concluded with the following recommendations: “If you don’t know Monk, there is no better introduction than Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, recorded in November 1957 but not released until 2005. The two solo albums Monk recorded with Riverside Records, Thelonious in San Francisco and Thelonious Himself, are pretty much gold. His first album for Colombia, Monk’s Dream, and Underground, one of his last, are both excellent.”

Since that time, a fascinating double CD, Dizzy Gillespie Showtime at the Spotlite has appeared, documenting Monk’s brief stay with Dizzy’s big band in 1945. Monk gets very little solo space, even on Round Midnight (his own composition), one reason why he rarely bothered to show up,7 but it’s exciting (for a Monk fan, at least) to hear the earliest available recordings of Monk sounding Monkish.

If you want to read about Monk, check out the excellent new bio by Robin D. G. Kelley, Thelonioius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Also available is a book of photographs taken by Pannonica, Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats.

  1. There are definitely too many shots of Hannah Rothschild wandering around present-day New York. The true artist keeps herself out of the picture, honey! []
  2. Clearly, it’s the “lightning round,” because the questions are fast! []
  3. The Oath of Abjuration, required of all Members of Parliament, affirmed the oath-taker’s allegiance to the House of Hanover and “abjured” allegiance to the Catholic House of Stuart “on the true faith of a Christian.” I haven’t been able to find the full text, but it may also have contained some explicitly anti-Jewish language, though at the time it was written (around 1700) the English certainly couldn’t have imagined that a Jew would be allowed to serve in any public office whatsoever. []
  4. The house, definitely one of a kind, is a two-story, largely glass job located near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, overlooking the Hudson. It was designed by legendary film director Joseph von Sternberg. []
  5. He was, predictably, a terrible driver. Fortunately for everyone, after a few years he lost all interest in the car and simply abandoned it on the street. []
  6. . Among other things, the Rothschilds kept, and may still keep, dwarf cherry trees planted in elegant tubs that are wheeled into dinner parties so that guests can pick their cherries straight from the tree. Such wretched excess is scarcely confined to Europe. At Dean & DeLuca’s in Georgetown, one can buy black winter truffles for $2,200.00 a pound. []
  7. Which was one reason why Gillespie fired him. But Monk was very frequently late to his own gigs. []