How A Record Can Change A Life: The Jazz Baroness and Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight

Poster for the HBO showing of the documentary film The Jazz Baroness

By Denis McGilvray

(See the end of this post for an update about the release of this film on DVD…)

The music of visionary be-bop pianist and composer Thelonious Monk has long been some of my favorite in the jazz realm, and really some of my favorite music of any genre. My wife, Sarah, said that he is her favorite musician; I asked her if she meant her favorite jazz musician, and she said no, her favorite musician of any kind. It’s easy to see why: Monk’s tunes are surprising and inventive, sometimes heart-breaking in their beauty but often joyously ebullient. They are full of incredibly memorable melodies. I often find myself humming or whistling one of his tunes while doing work around the house. Monk has been hailed as a musical genius, and rightly so, but his music was certainly not appreciated by critics and jazz aficionados early on because it was so different from anything else being played; even though he was among the early bop revolutionaries, his music was perhaps the furthest out of all of them. His playing was always a bit off-kilter and angular; it remains refreshingly modern sounding even though he was composing in the mid 20th-century. Monk had his roots in tradition and greatly respected and learned from the players of the previous generation, but he took that tradition and made from it something strikingly new — not always the easiest road to take in any artistic endeavor, and even less so when you’re a black jazz musician in the America of the 1940s and 50s.

Having been a longtime fan of Monk’s music, I had always been intrigued by the connection between him and the woman who was a patron and friend to him and many other jazz musicians – the woman known as Nica: Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, born Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild. Yes, she was one of the Rothschilds – part of the English branch of the German Jewish financial dynasty that has been among the wealthiest families in the world for several hundred years. I knew only the sketchy outlines of their story when I saw a documentary film called The Jazz Baroness on HBO recently. The film was truly a revelation. If you’re interested in jazz music or music history, I highly recommend that you see The Jazz Baroness, which tells the story of the long-lasting friendship between Pannonica and Thelonious Monk. Their personal stories are fascinating and beautifully told by the film’s writer, producer, and director, Hannah Rothschild, who made the film for the BBC. Ms. Rothschild is Nica’s great-niece and made the film in part to explore a part of her own family history, which was something of a mystery to her.  Amidst all the riveting family and musical drama in the film, there is one event, however, that just kept playing in my head after watching The Jazz Baroness: how listening to one record changed Nica’s life, and ultimately the whole jazz world.

You may wonder, how can a record change a life? Hannah Rothschild wondered about that too. She ponders the mesmerizing effect that one recording had on her great-aunt and how it could have changed her life so dramatically. While the whole story of Nica and Monk’s unlikely friendship – an English heiress to the Rothschild fortune befriending an African-American musician born in rural North Carolina – is astonishing in itself, what I found most compelling was the tale of how this friendship came to be. In the film, the tale is told in Nica’s own words from an interview with Bruce Ricker, producer of the excellent documentary film about Thelonious Monk entitled Straight, No Chaser.

The story goes: it’s the early 1950s, Nica is in New York City, on her way back to Mexico where she was living with her husband and family. On the way to the airport she stops to visit her friend, jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. During the visit, he asks if she’s heard the tune “’Round Midnight” and she replies, no, she’s never even heard of Thelonious Monk. Wilson tells her she can’t leave without hearing it and pulls out the record. He plays “’Round Midnight” and Nica recounts, “I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d never heard anything remotely like it. I made him play it 20 times in a row. I missed my plane, and never went back to Mexico.”

Wow! That is one powerful tune. Presumably, the recording of “’Round Midnight” that she heard was the version from the Blue Note album Genius of Modern Music: Volume 1, which Monk recorded in 1947 but was not released until 1951; this was Monk’s first recording of the song that would become one of the most beloved, and most recorded, jazz pieces of all time. (Hear a full version of the 1947 “‘Round Midnight”.) Nica was so taken with Monk’s playing that she essentially devoted the rest of her life to the cause of modern jazz music and its beleaguered creators, in stark contrast to her upbringing and social position. How could this be?

However bewildering that Nica’s transformative experience seems, it does not surprise me: hearing one jazz tune had a transformative effect on my own life (although certainly not as world-changing as it was in her case.) For me the tune was “My Favorite Things” as played by John Coltrane; like Nica, I had never heard anything remotely like it, and the way Coltrane took this familiar, beloved song and blew it apart so beautifully was a consciousness-altering experience for me.* Knowing “’Round Midnight” well, I can understand her being moved so deeply by Monk’s recording that it changed her life. It is a ballad full of melancholy and shadow, and so heartbreakingly beautiful and personal – it really is one of the most emotionally moving tunes I’ve ever heard. (The version recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet on the 1957 album Round About Midnight is especially haunting, and also features Coltrane. You can hear it by going to the official Miles Davis website and clicking on the “Miles Davis Music Player” icon, then selecting it from the track listings.)  Filmmaker Hannah Rothschild speculates that it is perhaps the song’s “mournful, haunting chords which triggered feelings of loneliness and not belonging” in Pannonica and had such an effect on her. And hearing this for the first time in the very early 50s, when there was not much else, if anything, like it even among the be-boppers, seems to have been nothing less than an epiphany to her.

What I get from the film is that Pannonica was not just some well-to-do lady on a mission of mercy; she was a genuine friend to these guys and cared deeply for these artists whose music she truly loved and felt passionate about, often when society as a whole did not. Hers was certainly not an uncomplicated life: she divorced her husband in part because of her love of jazz, faced defamatory and blatantly misleading stories about her life in the New York press (especially after Charlie Parker died while being cared for in her apartment,) and did everything she could to protect and nurture the sometimes fragile Monk and his family, even risking a prison sentence for him at one time. Nica took Monk into her home at the end of his life when Monk’s wife Nellie could no longer care for him alone. Nellie would visit every day and spend her time with him and her dear friend Nica. All of this because of one record! I don’t know of another tale quite like it in the annals of music history. Sure, many classical musicians had their patrons, but I’m not familiar enough with that history to know if there was ever a musical relationship as unlikely and as enduring as the one between Nica and Monk.

Nica’s story reminds me of the powerful impact which music can have upon us. If you’re reading this, then there’s a pretty good chance you have some inkling about the power of music also. That’s one of the reasons I created this blogazine: to share the importance of music in our lives. Please feel free to share your own stories of how a song or album has affected your life by joining in the commentary section at the end of this piece.

There’s another reason I wanted to include something in Monk’s honor here near the launch of Jukebox Delirium on Mardi Gras day, February 16, 2010. Thelonious Monk died on February 17, 1982. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I write about him. His musical legacy is growing all the time. It seems like I hear Monk’s tunes being played by more musicians than any other jazz composer I know of (even perhaps surpassing Duke Ellington.) Rest in peace, Monk…and thanks for the wondrous music.

To underscore what an influence Monk’s music had on her, Pannonica made one special request before she died in 1988, revealing how, nearly 40 years later, that one record was still so powerful. She simply said: “I would like my ashes to be scattered on the Hudson River, in the evening, around midnight. I think you all know why.”

*Note: The story of my hearing Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” for the first time will soon be the subject of another post on Jukebox Delirium, and is one of the main inspirations for my love of music in general…

Further Exploration
The Jazz Baroness was a production of the BBC, and grew out of a BBC Radio 4 documentary made in 2008. The film was written, directed, produced, and narrated by Nica’s great-niece, Hannah Rothschild. It aired on BBC television in the U.K. in April 2009, then on HBO in the United States in November and December 2009; it seems that it’s not yet available for purchase and no future airings are listed at this time. You can find out more by checking these sites:
The Jazz Baroness – official site related to the film (as of early 2012, this web site appears to no longer exist…)
HBO’s pages about the film
The Official Thelonious Monk website: Monkzone.com
Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley — a critically acclaimed biography of Monk published in October 2009 by Simon & Schuster.
Monk and the Baroness: An Interview with Documentarian Hannah Rothschild on the All About Jazz website.

UPDATE – February 21, 2012:

Since several people have asked about the DVD release of this film, I’ve tried to gather some new information about that. The main website for the film, which had been active even a few months ago, no longer exists. There is going to be a DVD release of the Jazz Baroness in the U.K. as confirmed by its listing on the Amazon.co.uk website. The release date is listed as April 30, 2012. This will be a Region 2/PAL format DVD sold in Europe. (See the Amazon page for info about DVD formats/region codes.) The Amazon U.S. site has no listing for the film, but there is this new book that was released in the summer of 2011:

Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, by David Kastin.(W.W. Norton & Company, June 2011.) According to the blurb, this is the first full biography of Pannonica Rothschild.

To be published May, 2012. (Image courtesy of HannahRothschild.com)

And after doing a bit more research, I found out that Hannah Rothschild has her own biography of Pannonica coming out in May, 2012: The Baroness: the Search for Nica the Rebellious Rothschild. (Virago Press, May 2012.) I have sent a message through her “Contact” page inquiring about a U.S. release of the DVD.

Whenever I come across new information, I’ll post it here. You can subscribe to receive updates. Thanks for reading…

Thelonious Monk playing “‘Round Midnight” live; date and location unknown – probably mid 1960s on a European TV program:

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10 comments

  1. Well you needn’t, but I’m glad you did. Been a Monk fan since my high school days, but had not heard the story of The Baroness. Thanks man.

  2. Denis,
    Thanks for this post. I learned a lot, and am now enjoying Miles Davis’ ‘Round Midnight. Sweet! I look forward to following your blog. By the way, I put a link to you on our site. Hope it sends some aficionados your way!
    ..r.

  3. Very cool Denis. I really enjoyed reading your post and listening to Monk at the same time. Nice work! I’m so glad you are doing this.

  4. Terrific piece, Denis. Thanks. I was glad to see you refer to the fine documentary film (from 1988) about Monk and his music, STRAIGHT NO CHASER. This is a film that I first saw back in high school, when it had just come out — and when I was initially getting bitten by the jazz bug. The movie had a tremendous influence on my “listening habits,” as they like to say in the focus groups. It’s a wonderful film. Check it out, dear readers, if you’re at all curious to learn more about Monk, his music, and/or his friendship with Nica. I see, FYI, that there are several DVD copies of this film on hand in the Tulsa City-County Library system. (Also: STRAIGHT NO CHASER was executive-produced by one Clint Eastwood, a longtime jazz buff who’s actually done lots and lots of other cool, jazz-related projects over the course of his stellar career — and whose son, Kyle, is a fine jazz bass-player. Kyle is based in Paris, I think, and has made a few albums as a leader. But I digress. But I guess that’s the point.)

    1. I will! I’ve been meaning to write to Hannah Rothschild about it. I think she – or someone involved with the film – can be reached through The Jazz Baroness website that is linked above. Thanks for reading…

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