Wednesday, January 13, 2010

NYJFF ’10: The Jazz Baroness

Most jazz fans have heard of her, rather they realize it or not. The Baroness Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter was immortalized in musical tributes composed by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Drew, and Jon Hendricks. Yet for “Nica” de Koenigswarter, Monk was unquestionably the first among equals. Her deep friendship with the pianist-composer and his family is the major focus of The Jazz Baroness, Hannah Rothschild’s documentary profile of her Great Aunt Nica, which screens as part of this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, following its 2009 broadcast run on HBO2.

Koenigswarter had already lived an eventful life before she ever heard bebop. She had served as an ambulance driver and communications specialist with the free French during WWII, first in Africa and later in Germany. Yet jazz would be her true calling. Ironically, it was Teddy Wilson, best known as Billie Holiday’s long-time accompanist and a member of the integrated Benny Goodman Quartet, who introduced her to Monk’s music. Though she was powerfully moved by “’Round Midnight,” it would be two years until she actually met Monk, launching a fast but lasting friendship after a concert in Paris.

Appropriately, Rothschild’s first introduction to her late great aunt was in a downtown jazz club, with her stately Bentley parked outside. Indeed, the Baroness always embraced the scene despite her privileged background. She became a one-woman forerunner to the Jazz Foundation of America, often paying medical bills and getting horns out of hock for musicians in need. It also brought her into unfortunately close proximity to some of the seedier aspects of nightlife, particularly illicit drugs. She was mercilessly vilified by Walter Winchell after Charlie Parker, exhausted by years of hard living, died in her residence in the Stanhope Hotel and even faced potential incarceration on another occasion.

It is difficult for filmmaker Rothschild to fully classify the nature of the relationship between Monk and the Baroness. The friends and musicians she interviews, including Monk’s son drummer T.S. Monk, all adamantly insist it was a strictly platonic friendship. Indeed, by all accounts, the Baroness and Monk’s wife Nellie were almost equally close. Yet Baroness clearly suggests there was some special connection between the musician and the jazz patroness that still defies easy description, but became a part of the mystique of them both.

Though Hannah Rothschild might not share her great aunt’s passion for jazz, she gleaned considerable insights from a number of jazz legends, including Sonny Rollins and Roy Haynes, who played with Monk at one time, as well as artists like Chico Hamilton, Archie Shepp, and Quincy Jones, who followed the trail he blazed. Rothschild also had the benefit of some measure of cooperation (if not enthusiasm) from her illustrious family. (After all, they are Rothschilds, the family that financed the British war effort against Napoleon.) Of course, it is all accompanied by generous samples of Monk’s haunting music, as well as his distinctive renditions of a few jazz standards.

Admirably, Baroness treats jazz and the musicians who play it with due and proper respect. With Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren giving voice to the Baroness’s letters and journals, it is all assembled in a very classy, British package. It is a great jazz documentary that will make a nice change of pace from the much of the programming at the 2010 NYJFF. It screens Saturday (1/16), Sunday (1/17), and Monday (1/18) at the Walter Reade Theater.