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The Baroness of Jazz

Pannonica Rothschild was a descendant of Europe's greatest banking dynasty - and a savior to struggling American jazz musicians.

The scene is a dark, smoky club in Greenwich Village, New York in 1958. Onstage a quartet is performing a complicated piece of music. Everyone is smoking and drinking; it's the Fifties and cigarettes and alcohol are still socially-acceptable substances. It's the music that is not quite acceptable - that Jazz and the men who play it. They are African-American musicians in a time before the civil rights movement. Many of them are known drug users.

A murmur goes through the crowd, and the musicians acknowledge the new arrival. "Hi, Nica," they call out, "Hey, Baroness." The woman they're addressing is wearing a leopard-skin coat and a patrician air. She carries the formidable name of Baroness Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter. She's aristocratic and white, and she is the jazz musicians' patron and fierce protector. There are individuals who seem intent on flouting the conventions of their time; in Pannonica's case it was more of a passion.

Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, of the British banking dynasty, was born in London in 1913. Her father Charles was an early proponent of nature conservation; he named her after a moth he'd discovered. Her mother Rozsika von Wertheimstein was known as "The Rose of Hungary" - among other things she was a tennis champion, and the first woman to serve overhead. "Nica was raised in the lap of luxury; she wasn't allowed to do anything for herself," notes her eldest son Patrick, a long time resident of Manila. "She couldn't even go shopping alone; a valet always followed her, carrying a chequebook."

Nica had grown up listening to her father's jazz records, and her brother Victor was a huge fan of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson. As a teenager she re-encountered jazz at the series of London debutante balls that followed her presentation at Court. She befriended a tenor saxophonist named Bob Wise, who was also an amateur pilot; before long she was flying a plane. It was at Le Touquet airfield that the 21-year-old Nica met her future husband, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, 31. Jules, a French widower with a young son, was a mining engineer and banker, Jewish, and a pilot. The courtship began immediately. Three months later he proposed marriage, and she took off for New York to think it over. He followed her, and they were married at City Hall in October 1935.

The Koenigswarters settled in Abondant, a 17th century chateau in Eure and Loire, not far from Normandy. When World War II broke out, Jules, a lieutenant in the reserves, was called up. "Before joining his regiment, he left my mother a map, with instructions: If the Germans get to this point, take the children and escape any way you can to your family in England," Patrick says. Soon after that the Germans passed the Maginot Line. Nica, her two children, stepson, nanny and maid left Paris on May 25 and arrived in London three days later. On June 14, the Nazis occupied Paris. On June 18, 1940, in a famous BBC radio address, General Charles De Gaulle called on all freedom-loving Frenchmen to join him in England to continue the fight. Jules, who had made it to the still-unoccupied south of France, recruited 111 men for the Free French. They were accepted aboard the SS Sobieski, a Polish passenger cruise ship transformed into a troop carrier. Approximately 2,000 Polish troops were also on board.

Jules was subsequently assigned to Brazzaville, and later on to Accra to liaise with the British forces there. Jules still feared for his family's safety, and advised Nica to take the kids to Canada or the United States. His own mother had refused his entreaties to leave France. She was arrested by the French Police and interned at Auschwitz, where she died. Nica deposited Patrick and his younger sister, Janka, at Falaise, the Guggenheim estate on Long Island. Then loaded with supplies for the Free French, she rejoined her husband in Brazzaville. She became a private in the French Army, and was put to work as a decoder. In Brazzaville she worked as a broadcaster. With his engineering background Jules was initially assigned to modify tank turrets; later he commanded a Marine battalion which saw action in North Africa, Italy and France. For his services to his country he received a number of medals, including the Liberation Cross, the highest French military decoration awarded in the Second World War. Nica went to work as an ambulance driver. She contracted malaria repeatedly during her missions in Africa. Jules ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel, Nica as a decorated lieutenant.

When the war ended Jules joined the French diplomatic service and moved his family to Norway, then to Mexico. Without the romance and adrenaline of war to sustain them, the Koenigswarters' marriage gradually fell apart. "My father was a very controlling person," Patrick notes. "He reminded my mother of her own domineering mother. He was adamant about punctuality, while Nica was notorious for being late. She missed appointments, sometimes by days, and was constantly missing planes. It didn't help that my father had no particular interest in the subjects that fascinated her: art and music. He would quip that they were not serious matters."

Nica had always been a jazz fan, and on her increasingly frequent trips to New York her brother introduced her to his musician friends. One night she heard the pianist Teddy Wilson play Thelonious Monk's composition, Round Midnight. "She was absolutely floored. She missed her flight, and in fact never returned to Mexico." Nica and Jules, who separated in 1952, finally divorced in 1956. She moved into the Hotel Stanhope on Fifth Avenue, where she kept open house for impoverished jazz musicians. "At the time, she had no idea they would someday become famous. No one could have imagined it. They were virtually social pariahs," Patrick notes.

Despite the dirty looks and murmured insults from so-called polite society, Nica gave these struggling artists friendship and hospitality, and whenever necessary, food, shelter, and pocket money. She paid their medical bills and drove them to and from their gigs, in her Rolls-Royce, and then in the convertible that came to be known as the "Bebop Bentley". She also had an arrangement with a taxi company, so that if any of her musician friends were in trouble, they would be picked up and driven to her place.

The Baroness was a supporter and friend of Coleman Hawkins, Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and many others now enshrined in the pantheon of jazz. She gave sanctuary to these struggling artists in the 1950s and Sixties, when the mere sight of a white woman in the company of black musicians was cause for scandal. They paid her tribute in music: Pannonica by Monk, Thelonica by Tommy Flanagan and Nica's Dream by Horace Silver are among the two dozen pieces dedicated to her.

In 1955 the ailing, broke, and desperate Charlie Parker took refuge in Nica's suite at the Stanhope. Nica tried to help him, but years of drug abuse and alcoholism finally took their toll. The doctor who pronounced him dead put his age at "around 54" when he was actually 34. This was of little importance to the tabloids, whose headlines shrieked "The Bird in the Baroness's Boudoir" and "Bop King Dies in Heiress's Flat".

Nica's closest relationship was with the jazz innovator Thelonious Monk. They were a familiar sight at New York jazz clubs: the big, imposing black man with his cryptic mumbling and odd behaviour, and the white women with the furs, the flask full of Chivas Regal, and the cut-glass accent. When Monk was arrested for possession of marijuana, Nica took the rap for him so he wouldn't lose his cabaret card, his license to play. After Monk's death she wrote that "He could make you see the music inside the music", and that without saying a word, he made her laugh more than anyone she'd ever known. It was Monk who convinced her to give up hotel life and get a house.

Nica bought a two-storey house in Weehawken, New Jersey that was originally built for the film director Josef von Sternberg. The house had a fabulous view of midtown Manhattan directly across the Hudson River; Monk would often stand at the large plate glass window, playing conductor to some invisible orchestra. If anyone asked what he was doing, he would say that he was "conducting the clouds". The place was soon dubbed The Cathouse - for the cool cats of jazz who crashed in it, and the hundred actual felines who roamed at will.

"It wasn't a mansion," says Patrick, who lived there from 1960 to 1962, until the 4am jam sessions and the feline depredations on his graduate school papers eventually drove him to seek quieter surroundings. "My mother was comfortable, she had a trust fund, but she always had money worries. She had so many expenses - her catfood and veterinarian bills were astronomical, and you can imagine the smell." With typical humour, Nica described the place as "the only house on the block without a For Sale sign". She lived in that house until her death in 1988.

It was at The Cathouse, amid the mewling cats and the joyous noises, that Nica took her photographs - hundreds of Polaroids of the men, and a few women, now recognised as jazz greats. The pictures reveal her subjects in their unguarded moments, relaxing, playing, or lost in thought. Along with the photos she asked them to make three wishes. Most of them wished for good health (many of them had drug problems), wealth (they had trouble making ends meet), and social equality.

Horace Silver wished for immortality, Wes Montgomery wished for "no discrimination whatsoever", and Miles Davis wished "to be white". Nica showed her Three Wishes albums to several US publishing houses in the late Sixties, but was told there was "no market for jazz". "She felt it was important to publish the book because it provided a record of the thoughts and hopes of an unappreciated yet extremely original and significant segment of American culture. She wanted to show that the idealism of her musician friends persisted despite the obstacles they faced," Patrick explains. Her book - Les Musiciens de Jazz et leurs Troix Voeux - was published in France late last year by Buchet Chastel and promptly sold out. In December 2006, it received the Academie du Jazz award for book of the year in France; an English edition is in the works. Nica's photographs were shown at the photography exposition in Arles in 2007.

Apart from her photography and her abstract paintings, Nica wrote a humorous newsletter called The Daily Cat Chat, and painted using materials like scotch and perfume. "She had a sold-out exhibit at a New York gallery," Patrick recalls, "And then spent the next year trying to buy her paintings back because she hated the thought of being parted from them." She also designed an album cover and wrote the liner notes for several of her friends' records.

Not everyone was enamored of the "Angel of Jazz". The gossip magazines bristled with innuendo, and some found her opinionated and arrogant. "There was a lot of jealousy in jazz, as there tends to be in most artistic circles. She did have her favourites, as well as her pet peeves, which included anyone who dared to criticise her favorites. She could be very outspoken," Patrick adds. Nica was particularly upset at how she was portrayed in Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic, Bird. "She's Hollywood's idea of a baroness, not at all like me," she told friends. "She looks like a constipated horse." She made her displeasure known to Eastwood, who had consulted her in the course of filming, and they became good friends. Eastwood himself merited her highest compliment: "He's a lovely man". After her passing, Eastwood described her as "a great lady".

"She had unbelievable charm - she could talk her way out of practically anything," Patrick recalls. "She always drove as if she were competing at Le Mans, and she paid very little attention to traffic rules. In my parents' divorce settlement there's a clause my father insisted upon: under no conditions were any of us children to ride in a car driven by Nica. A condition that was largely ignored." One late night in Manhattan, at a red light, a shiny sports car pulled up next to her beat-up Bentley Continental convertible. The elegant gentleman driving the sports car signalled her to roll down her window.

Then he said, "Madam, you should be ashamed of yourself. You have a rare and beautiful car, but you treat it in a disgraceful manner." She looked at the concerned gentleman and replied, "**** you!" Then she sped off. He caught up with her at the next red light, and once again, asked her to roll down her window. Despite their previous encounter, she did so. The gentleman said, "Madam, with all due respect, the same to you!"

He was, she declared, "A lovely man." Jessica Zafra is a writer in Manila. She is the author of a series of books called Twisted.

Updated: May 29, 2008 04:00 AM