The “Jazz Baroness” documentary premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and was subsequently picked up by HBO for distribution. The documentary is hard to classify. The title refers to Pannonica Rothschild, and her story is told by grand niece, Hannah Rothschild, after a decade of research into her aunt’s incredible life. Nica’s (as she was known throughout her life) relationship with legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk is the primary focus of the film. But it’s not a documentary about Monk and it leaves a lot of Nica’s own life unexamined.
What we do see unfold is the story of a niece who fleshes out the mysteries of her family tree. Hannah narrates the story and Helen Mirren provides the voice of Nica, bring to life her diary entries and letters. It wasn’t an easy task to get family members to discuss Nica’s life (none of her five children participated). Aside from archival sources, most of Hannah’s interviews were with Nica’s friends from the jazz world - who insisted that her story be told!
In brief, Pannonica was born in 1913, into the wealth and extravagance of all things Rothschild. She became a baroness (de Koeningswarter) by marriage in 1934. During the second world war, Nica followed her husband to the North Africa theater and aided the French Resistance. In the after the war her husband became a diplomat, and they eventually found the family stationed in Mexico. At that point she had a musically epiphany that changed the course of her life.
On the way to the airport for a flight back to Mexico, she stopped off to visit a friend. He turned her on to “Round Midnight” - at the time she had never heard of Thelonious Monk. According to Nica, she listened to it 20 straight times - and then a few more times for good measure! She never went back to her husband, leaving her marriage and moving to New York City. It’s unclear at that point how Nica raised her 5 children. But she did have the younger ones live with her.
She finally met Monk two years later - not in New York, but in Paris. Monk had lost his cabaret license and couldn’t play in the NYC clubs during that period. It was the beginning of their long, and intense relationship. Unclear is whether Monk and Nica ever more than platonic friends during all those years. Monk was married, and his wife was friends with Nica throughout that time. Monk’s son believes that Nica was in love with him, but didn’t speculate beyond that observation.
Regardless, Nica became an important part of the jazz scene and a fixture in Monk’s life. In 1955, Charles Parker died in her apartment. In 1958, she was busted for drug possession (claiming they belonged to her to avoid sending Monk and his sax player, Charles Rouse, to jail) when they drove to a concert in Maryland. She eventually moved out of New York, to New Jersey, into a house that she shared with more than 300 cats. Monk hated the cats, but put up with them for Nica.
Hannah met her grand aunt for the first time in 1984. She was shocked to find her drinking whiskey from a tea cup - in a downtown jazz club! Hannah located the club with Nica’s direction - just look for the car (her Bentley). Nica died in 1988, she was 75 years old. There were over 20 (maybe 24) songs written for (or about) Nica by the jazz musicians she associated with during her illustrious life.
The only sad thing about this otherwise fantastic documentary was the sense of wanting more when it ended. With a running time of just over 80 minutes, it seemed like there was so much more to say about her. Nica’s last request was to have her ashes spread on Hudson River, around midnight. Her friends and family obliged.