Great Encounters #28: When The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter met Thelonious Monk

October 3rd, 2013

Hannah Rothschild, niece of the great jazz patron the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (and a member of the Rothschild family), writes about the initial meeting of Thelonious Monk and her aunt, who would eventually become his benefactor.  The Baroness and Monk are pictured above.


Excerpted from The Baroness, by Hannah Rothschild


     Paris was the perfect place for Monk and Nica’s first meeting. The city had lost some of its pre-war sheen but was still the capital of chic. Chanel had reopened her fashion house in 1954, introducing natty little suit jackets and slimline skirts. French movies inspired women to cut off their hair, wear cigarette pants and hooped earrings. There was an aura of tolerant multiculturalism. Nica’s friend Kenny Clarke, the bebop drummer, arrived in 1947: “There’s a difference in the mentality here. People are not afraid to walk around their neighbourhood, to become friends. Socially you fell adjusted. As a black man, as a musician – as a person, I’ve been lucky to be able to live here.” Being a mixed-race couple did not present any problems. Observing the passionate love affair between Juliette Greco and Miles Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre asked the trumpeter why he didn’t marry her and take her back with him to New York. Miles answered, “Because I love her too much to make her unhappy.” It was, he explained, a question of colour.

     Nica flew to Paris with her new friend, the pianist Mary Lou Williams, whom she had recently met with Teddy Wilson. Born Mary Effrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia, Mary Lou was self-taught and by the age of six was helping to support her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing at parties. In 1925, aged only fifteen, she was part of Duke Ellington’s Big Band. Nicknamed “the little piano girl of East Liberty,” Mary Lou wrote arrangements and compositions for many jazz greats and recorded over one hundred albums. One of the few women jazz artists to make it in a male-dominated world, Mary Lou became Nica’s lifelong friend. Her archive, now at Rutgers University, contains many of Nica’s letters, paintings and diary entries. A devout Catholic, Mary Lou never shied away from acting as a moral compass and confidante to her European friend. She saw no harm in introducing Nica to her friend Thelonious Monk.

    By the time Monk made it onto the stage in Paris, he had smoked a lot of dope chased down by cognac. The audience had come to hear Claude Luter’s Dixieland jazz and music of that ilk. They were not expecting a grunting pianist whose makeshift, under-rehearsed percussion section was out of time with Monk’s wild playing. Halfway through the set Monk walked offstage to have another drink before returning to play another tune in his inimitable, discordant, dissonant style. The critics, both French and English, hated it, calling it “startling and banal” and describing Monk as a “kind of court jester to modern Jazz.”

   Nica remembered the evening quite differently. She was enthralled. Monk surpassed all her expectations. In her opinion, the audience was bowled over. “He played two tunes – that’s all – and walked off and the audience were really grasped by it,” she said on tape. “In fact they were yelling, ‘Monk, Monk,’ and he didn’t come back but Gerry Mulligan was waiting to play so that was that.”

   From that moment, Nica’s life changed. The touchpaper lit when she heard the record “‘Round Midnight” burst into flames upon meeting its composer. She had heard her calling with a Duke Ellington composition and now found her mission with a Monk tune. For the next twenty-eight years she would devote her life to Thelonious Monk, laying her time and love at the musician’s feet like a cloth of devotion.

    After their first encounter, Nica admitted, “I needed an interpreter to understand what he was saying at the beginning. He wasn’t easy. I didn’t know Thelonious’s English. We hit it off and hung out for the rest of the time he was in Paris. We had a ball.” No one knows exactly what kind of ball Monk and Nica enjoyed. For her, Monk was “the most beautiful man I have ever seen. He was a very large man, but his presence was much larger still. Any time he walked into a room he dominated it. In fact he could be sitting in a chair or lying in a bed, speaking our silent, and he still dominated any room he was in.”

    Thelonious’s son Toot was convinced Nica was smitten, telling me: “I know that your aunt fell in love with my dad, I have no doubt about that. She followed him here. She didn’t know anything about him, but she was profoundly moved by his music and his personaility.” Was it really that simple? Toot smiled and then added, “He was a good-looking cat, she was a hotty.”

   Stanley Crouch though that the attraction was musical. “There is a certain kind of aristocracy in Monk’s music and [the] United States is 3,000 miles away [from Paris] so it actually is possible for somebody from almost as different a background as Monk’s to become entranced by his music. You see, there’s always a kind of a human magic that can transcend what we know about society and relations and all that. They had that for each other.”


Excerpted from The Baroness, by Hannah Rothschild



Monk plays “Pannonica,” a song written for The Baroness

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