Book Review: Nica’s Dream by David Kastin

Nica's DreamInterviewer: What is jazz?

Thelonious Monk: New York, man. You can feel it. It’s around in the air…

If the ‘Jazz Baroness’ Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter hadn’t existed, would the great beboppers have had to invent her?

The benefactor and friend to the stars was an important figure in the jazz lexicon but has hitherto only been mentioned in passing with reference to such greats as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Mary Lou Williams, Hampton Hawes and Art Blakey.

Famously, Parker died at her New York hotel suite and Monk was nursed by her in the last 10 years of his life, and the likes of Horace Silver, Gigi Gryce, Monk and Blakey wrote enduring musical tributes to her which have become classics. Yet the popular press in the US often portrayed her in a less than flattering light, as a comical, sometimes even parasitical figure.

Apart from a recent BBC film and some charming but brief verite appearances in the Clint Eastwood-produced Monk documentary ‘Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser’, official studies of the Baroness have been few and far between. David Kastin’s ‘Nica’s Dream’attempts to redress the balance with a fast-moving, entertaining account of this glamorous, poshly-spoken dame with the cigarette holder and silver hip flask who piloted her own plane across the English Channel, married a French baron, fought in the French Resistance and had five children!

But the jazz life came calling after Nica heard Cootie Williams‘ 1944 version of ‘Round Midnight’, written by pianist Thelonious Monk, and she famously left her family, moved to Manhattan and started to frequent the city’s nightclubs.

Despite her standing in the legendary European banking dynasty, her Rothschild identity was a source of great satisfaction for the many marginalised black musicians she befriended. While tabloid stories about an attractive, white heiress openly consorting with African-American jazz musicians fuelled the era’s racial and sexual hysteria, the bond Nica formed with the jazz community easily sidestepped the stereotypes. As Monk himself declares with unmistakable delight in the ‘Straight No Chaser’ documentary, ‘I’ll tell everyone who you are. I’m proud of you. She’s a billionaire! She’s a Rothschild!’ And pianist Hampton Hawes wrote, ‘I suppose you would call Nica a patron of the arts. She was like a brother to the musicians who lived in New York. There was no jive about her, and if you were for real, you were accepted and were her friend.’

Kastin steers away from too much exposition about Nica’s background and wisely cuts snappily to the New York of the ’40s and ’50s, where her silver Rolls-Royce (nicknamed The Silver Pigeon) was an unlikely fixture on 52nd Street. Kastin expertly brings to life this golden age of New York life, a world of taxi cabs, sharp suits, smoky nightclubs and lightning-fast bebop.

The book opens with a gripping but grim account of Charlie Parker’s death in Nica’s Stanhope Hotel suite in 1955, piecing together the tragic events and putting them in a contemporary context, drawing on the tabloid reports of the time and Nica’s own version of events outlined both in Nat Hentoff‘s famous Esquire magazine profile and Robert Reisner’s ‘Bird: The Legend Of Charlie Parker’. Kastin then devotes a large section to Nica’s relationship with Monk, the bebop genius who was a regular visitor to Stanhope and recipient of a $10,000 mink coat. He later wrote ‘Pannonica’ for her at the piano in her Algonquin Hotel suite, and Nica watched out for him throughout his troubled life.

The anecdotes come thick and fast, some predictable, others completely unexpected and inspiring. Kastin reveals that the Baroness bought matching Ivy League suits, shirts, ties and shoes for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and often bailed them out when they were refused payment by dodgy nightclub owners while touring in the Midwest.

And one night in the late ’50s, Nica was driving Monk, his wife Nellie and Hampton Hawes home from a club engagement on Seventh Avenue in New York when none other than Miles Davis pulled alongside in his Mercedes and shouted out, ‘Wanna race?’ Nica replied in the affirmative. She then turned round to Monk and announced in her prim English tones, ‘This time, I believe I’m going to beat the motherfucker!’

‘Nica’s Dream‘ is published by WW Norton & Co.

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