David Kastin: Putting a Life into the Context of History
Author of book about jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter, better known as Nica, explains the person behind the legend and why she made for a compelling subject for a biographer
Although he has written articles for music publications in the past, writer David Kastin did not come through the ranks of music journalism the way so many jazz book authors have. Instead he spent 30 years as a teacher in the New York public school system. His first book for consumers, Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, was recently published by W.W. Norton and Company and it’s a thorough work of research, scholarship and storytelling.
He spoke with JazzTimes about how he turned to book-writing and about the interesting aspects of Nica’s story in the context of both jazz history and American history.
JazzTimes: Is this your first book?
David Kastin: Actually, I published a textbook on the history of American popular music in 2001. It’s called I Hear America Singing. It was published by Prentice-Hall as a college text.
Textbook writing used to be a lucrative pursuit for a writer.
The internet changed the ballgame with textbooks, with all the resources available at the click of a button. You could make a lot of money with an English textbook, but popular music courses are few and far between. It was an important part of my writing life over the last 15 years or so.
That’s a very broad topic.
It’s a tough thing to get your arms around. The book was an outgrowth of my teaching. My writing career has a different arc to it than most writers in that my primary gig was as an English teacher. I did that for 30 years in the New York public school system.
You and Frank McCourt.
We taught at the same school. I got hired by Stuyvesant High School, where he had also taught in the English department. He had just retired. Stuyvesant is a school that allows people to develop electives—courses that you could substitute for traditional courses. I developed this course called “American Literature and Popular Music,” which would combine standard types of reading that high school students would do with an adjunct of looking at music that related to that particular book. We tried to explore how the music and the literature could support each other and look at what American culture was all about. So the book was an outgrowth of that course. I worked on it for about ten years.
What sort of professional journalism or writing had you done before that?
When I was in college, I was an English major and specializing in American literature, but I also started taking some journalism courses. The first professional piece of writing I did was an article about the blues singer/guitarist John Hammond that was published in the Village Voice in the early ‘70s. From then, I would send out things on spec. I would do profiles and interviews. I started to get some pieces in DownBeat. I had a piece about saxophonist and tuba player Howard Johnson. Then I did a more substantial piece on the method of teaching of improvisation that Lee Konitz developed. But I couldn’t pay the bills on a couple articles every year. So I got into teaching because it was something that I was really interested in and I thought that teaching American literature in particular would make a very good career.
I hope that teaching literature to high school students didn’t ruin your love of it.
I found that if you approach students from where they are at, which was how I dealt with the musical component in my teaching as well—that is, looking at something they’re interested in and trying to see how earlier forms, whether it was hip hop music or video games, may connect. There’s a narrative arc to so many things that you can then link back to literature. I used music, art and all kinds of contemporary media. I think that hooks young people. I had a great experience teaching. I certainly didn’t sacrifice the canon or the traditional expectations about what you would do in a traditional English class.
How did you pick this subject of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, better known as Nica, the Jazz Baroness?
In 2004 I left teaching and I was looking to get into another writing project. The textbook had come out about three years earlier and I really enjoyed that whole idea of delving into a subject and researching and forming a concept or thesis and developing it. I was looking for a topic and I suddenly remembered that 2005 would be the 50th anniversary of the death of Charlie Parker. I thought that would be a great hook to develop an article. And the person who sort of haunts that story is the “Baroness.” He died in her apartment and she became a bit of a legendary figure. So in 2004 I started poking around her story with the idea of writing this kind of sidebar piece about the Baroness. But I just got swept up in her story. The deadline just flew by and I kept working on it. About a year later I had a 20-25 page article that appeared in the Journal of Popular Music & Society. It was an overview of who she was and the story behind the legend. That was picked up by the Da Capo Best Music Writing series in 2007. An agent contacted me with the idea of developing it into a book. I worked on it for three years and now the book is out.
I am hard-pressed to think of another book about someone like her who was a jazz patron and fan. What was it specifically about her that so captured your interest?
That’s true. There are people who bubble up to the surface and who were part of the milieu. And those are the figures who often fascinate me the most. For any jazz fan, the idea of someone who entered and was accepted into that world at that time is just so tantalizing. Serious jazz fans seem to have this fantasy of not just being fans and listeners but also of becoming part of the world itself. Here was someone who did that and did it at a level that was just extraordinary. She was among the greats. That fascinated me. What I find out about her was that she had this incredible backstory, beyond her amazing life in the jazz world.
Beyond her life as a member of the Rothschild family, she was also a pilot, for example.
Right, when she was just 20 or 21 years of age. This is going back to the early ‘30s. Imagine how dangerous that was. That resonated with me as well. It was not just that she flew a plane across the English Channel when she was 21 years old, but there are amazing stories about her driving like a racecar driver through the streets of Manhattan. People would tell me about her picking up Monk on the Upper West Side and driving down through most of Manhattan to the Five Spot, way downtown, and beating every light and getting there in ten minutes.
The essence of her whole life was a quest for freedom. Whether it was taking off in an airplane, driving through the city or escaping the tradition-bound world of the Rothschild family in the European aristocracy into this fast-paced world of modern jazz, it just seemed all of a piece.
Her story or the one you told seems like a great idea for a movie, because of the dramatic and episodic nature of her life and because of the way she intersected with some very important events and movements in the 20th century. And then there’s the visual imagery of this heiress driving manically and running around town with the cigarette holder.
A number of people have mentioned that. It’s valid because it’s this 20th century story of a person who embodies so much—whether it’s the women’s movement or the emergence of a new culture that was taking over from the old culture. And just the incredible sweep of history.
And her family became a symbol or target of anti-Semitism during the rise of Nazism.
Both her and her husband were caught up in this moment in history where the world was changing dramatically. Nat Hentoff made a joke in the Esquire piece he did about the Jazz Baroness—about how her involvement in the world of jazz was of a piece with the courage that she showed during World War II. Being on the battlefields with the Free French army and driving a jeep across North Africa took the same sort of courage it took later to immerse herself in the world of jazz. At that time in the early ‘50s, jazz was denigrated and the jazz musicians were seen as degenerate cats who were drug addicts and had no redeeming social value by so many people in the culture. It was as if by embracing them she was putting herself into the same kind of situation that she was in during the war. I know it was said [by Hentoff] ironically, but to some extent it was true.
How long did this book take you to research and write?
I did about a year’s work on the article and when I got the contract I spent another three years developing the book. So, about four years.
How did you research the Rothschild family, because they are famous for their secretiveness.
That was among the frustrations with the book. I wish I had started this book 20 or 25 years ago, because so many of the people closest to her in the jazz world have passed on. That was one important frustration. The other frustration had to do with access to the kind of material I thought would flesh out her story. The Rothschilds have always been very secretive and private. They keep personal documents about the family under very tight control. For example, her brother Victor, who was a very distinguished scientist, diplomat and political figure in England, ordered all his private papers to be burned upon his death. The same thing happened with a lot of the people in the family. There’s this whole piece of their private life that is gone. The Rothschild archives which are in London limit access to people who are only interested in the business affairs of the family or in their role as collectors. Many of them were collectors of art, coins, silver, books and other things. To try and get anything personal was virtually impossible.
It’s interesting because they were the subject of all that anti-Semitic paranoia about the Jews being part of a nefarious conspiracy. I suppose that must have contributed to their insular nature.
For 150-200 years the Rothschild family has been used as a symbol of what people called the Jewish conspiracy for world domination—the idea that there were these secret groups of people who were pulling the strings around the world. There were all of these caricatures of the Rothschilds as puppeteers. That’s how they were seen and the Nazis exploited that. But it certainly existed before the Nazi’s. There was this whole tint of anti-Semitism that the family had to deal with.
They were a family who included figures of tremendous accomplishment and intellect, but at the same time there were tinges of eccentricity. More than tinges, really. There were members through the generations who combined those sorts of intellectual and business acumen with quirky and eccentric qualities. I think the privacy was a product of both their business dealings and their family culture.
How many people did you interview for the book?
I would say I interviewed about 75 people—people directly involved with the jazz world, people who were part of the New York scene in general, and one or two distant relatives in the family. Nica had five children with her husband before they divorced in the wake of the Bird scandal. But the five children who are scattered around the world united in this one respect—that they refused to talk about their mother. To some degree that sense of privacy and secrecy was something they inherited. I also think that there is a kind of ambivalence about their mother’s story. They grew up feeling that she had disgraced the family in some way. She was “abandoning” the family to embrace this other world and they saw and experienced that as an abandonment of them.
Nica may not have been the stereotype of the ideal mother. I think it took a while for them to all become adults before they could see her in a different light, and recognize that there was something there that was of value and to see her place in the cultural history of America as significant. They came to terms with who she was. She did develop close relationships with each of the children over time. They would have these big reunions at Christmas at her house in Weehawken. That has to be balanced against the fact that they don’t want intrusions into their own private world. They refused to cooperate, but they were not hostile. They were all very pleasant. They had read my original article and felt that it was a fair and generous treatment of their mother. They just explained that as a family they chose not to cooperate with any publicity about her.
One of the issues that comes up when people talk about Nica and her relationship with jazz musicians is whether her relationships with the musicians were sexual in any way. It’s certainly not fair but there seems to be this irresistible urge in people to either project that notion or speculate about it. In researching and writing the book, did you feel that elephant in the room?
When you approach Nica’s story as I did with the same knowledge that most jazz fans have about her, there’s this sort of caricature of a woman who was associated with the European aristocracy, with symbols of status like the Bentley or Rolls Royce or the image of her with the long cigarette holder in one hand and a silver flask in the other. The characterization of her as some kind of groupie or people referring to her as "Monk’s mistress" is all in the backstory of the legend of the Jazz Baroness and it was something I had bought into before I did my research.
But it quickly became clear that not only was she much more than a caricature, but that most of what people were saying about her were distortions of the truth. I had to broach this subject—what was her relationship to the jazz musicians? It seemed that her attitude toward musicians was that of a friend and patron who saw her role as someone in the position she was, with her financial resources, to say: “What can I do to help these people? They are the great artists of our time and here I am in a position to be of support. That’s going to be how I spend my life. I’m going to devote my life to making things a little easier for these musicians.” They were struggling yet they were some of the most important artists of their time.
She lived at a succession of hotels before eventually settling in the house in Weehawken.
She was kicked out of some very good hotels! At the Stanhope she had a suite across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Musicians sort of turned it into this jazz salon. Bird died there and she was kicked out. She went over to the West Side where she stayed at the Hotel Bolivar, a very discreet little residential hotel along Central Park West and she sets up her jazz salon there and Monk writes some of his great tunes on her piano and of course she’s kicked out of there as well.
She then goes to the Algonquin Hotel, which was famous for being hospitable to artists and writers, and Monk would be visiting and wandering the hallways. And she’s kicked out of there. She finally buys her own house on the banks of the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey. That becomes her home for the rest of her life.
Monk famously lived out there for a long period of time. As well as Barry Harris.
She provided temporary refuge for a number of people along the way. Sonny Clark lived there for a time. There was this idea that her house was not only the locale for jam sessions and gatherings of great jazz musicians, but also a place where they could stay if they needed to. It’s a very unusual looking house. You go up this tree-lined street of suburban houses to a cul de sac where you see this modern cement house made up of two cubes that are stacked on top of each other. Wandering around the exterior, I could see the views across the Hudson of the New York skyline. It is a unique piece of architecture.
Wasn’t it designed by one of the Bauhaus architects?
It was a modernist house that was initially built for the film director Josef Von Sternberg who did The Blue Angel and The Scarlet Empress and all of these films with Marlene Dietrich. He was someone who valued contemporary art and architecture and he had it built [when he moved there from California]. It seemed like the perfect place for her, because it had this modernist sensibility and here she was living in this place where the musicians could feel was something special. I think that was all part of the package. The musician's attitude toward her was that she was a woman of tremendous taste, elegance and discernment and that extended to her appreciation of them as artists. They, in turn, saw her appreciation as having some special value.
As you mentioned earlier, Nat Hentoff wrote one of the few pieces about her—a very in-depth piece for Esquire.
That article that he did in 1960 was a major component of what we have about her story. When that scandal about Bird’s death broke, she found herself splashed across the tabloids along with her photo and headlines like “Bop King Dies in Heiress’s Flat.” The scandal sheets and gossip papers were writing these ridiculous stories about her. I think she became very wary then and refused really to have any dealings with the press at all. It was only when people wanted to tell Thelonious’ story that she was willing to give up some of her privacy in support of his recognition.
As often happens when someone is writing a book about a subject, there may be someone else writing a book about the same subject or even just covering some of the same topics. In your case, Robin DG Kelley researched, wrote and published his biography of Monk that came out about a year or so before yours. And that book was so well-researched and written. How did you deal with the overlap in the story? How did that affect you writing your book?
First of all, I have tremendous respect for Robin Kelley. I think his book on Thelonious Monk is one of the great jazz biographies. There was such amazing scholarship, but he also had great perspective, with his ability to place Monk in the context of the jazz world and the world of New York in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. It was a tremendous resource. Robin was incredibly supportive of my efforts. He shared the manuscript with me before the publication of the book. He served as a liaison with people I was interested in speaking with. He was incredibly generous. He had actually done a lot of the legwork for her story because hers was so integral to the story of Monk.
He really did a masterful job in portraying Monk in a way that had never been done before.
Even Monk’s admirers were willing to take on face value some of the myths about him. Robin was so dogged in pursuing every fact and debunking some of the myths that maybe people wanted to shield or protect.
Debunking myths is one of the secret weapons to a great biography, I think.
Absolutely. And it’s dangerous ground because people sometimes cherish those myths more than the reality. Robin was one of those people who said, “Let the chips fall where they may.”
Did you have much material left on the cutting-room floor?
They [the book publisher] had contracted for a book of a certain length, but as I was writing I tried to tell Nica’s story not just in the context of her life as a Rothschild or as a member of the jazz community, but also to see her in the context of what was going on at the time, especially in New York in the ‘50s when she arrived. There was so much going on. There was this whole modernist movement in art, literature, and socio-cultural history. Whether it was Jackson Pollock or Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg or independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes. What I realized was that so much of what was going on in these movements was linked to jazz. Being able to tell how her life dovetailed with the culture of New York and was an important part of my effort to explore this larger movement of modernism and culture of spontaneity. I did cut about 20,000 words from the book—things that weren’t as directly relevant to the story. But I think I got the essential elements in there.
One of the things that must have been a challenge for you in writing a book hopefully for people who aren’t lifelong jazz fans was in writing about important jazz musicians to an audience who might not understand why or how they were important. It can be tough to introduce people like Parker, Monk, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and then stop the narrative to explain why they were important. Jazz fans have an instant recognition and shorthand knowledge of these powerful and divergent personalities that general readers don’t. How did you deal with that challenge?
As I approached Nica’s story and tried to sketch out the arc of her life, I realized what was also happening was that her life was moving through jazz history. She became interested in jazz as a teenager. Her brother was an amateur pianist, and he moved away from the classical repertoire like so many people who were exposed to jazz. He was her entrée into the jazz world. That was in the early ‘30s during the Swing era.
And then she’s swept up into the whole bebop movement. She comes to New York from Mexico where her husband is the Ambassador, at first with just extended weekend trips hanging out on 52nd Street at clubs like Birdland. Then she gets into the life of Thelonious Monk and his whole style of music that finally begins to get recognition in the late ‘50s. Then all of a sudden, before she turns around, she’s having to confront the free jazz cats on the scene in the ‘60s—a whole new style of music. What I heard from people like Dan Morgenstern, who gave me a tremendous perspective on her, was that, while many jazz fans were embracing a particular performer or sub-genre, Nica embraced the music—all of it—and wanted to understand it all. She was a voracious reader of jazz books and magazines. That’s one of the things that Dan told me he admired most about her—that she wasn’t caught up in the factionalism of jazz and that she just embraced it all.
Nat has told me this story a few times about being at her house when Monk was there and her pulling out Ornette Coleman records to play.
Yes, that was one of the things I tried to show about her—that openness. Even if maybe she didn’t quite understand it or she didn’t quite get it or even like it, that she felt it was important enough to try. The other thing about featuring some of the jazz history in the book as part of her story was the idea that I could hear her voice in my head, saying, “Just remember, it’s not about me, it’s about them, the artists, the musicians." I think part of the reason she was reluctant to publicize herself and step out into the spotlight and do interviews was that she really did feel that it was all about them—these musicians, these great artists.
There are all of these amazing tapes that she made of those artists. They’re like gold for the jazz archivists.
We all just have to hope and pray that the material is made available some day. There is so much that she collected during those 30 years—recordings she made in jazz clubs, in her hotels, in her house—where she was just turning on the reel-to-reel tape recorder and whatever happened, she documented it. Whether it was concerts, rehearsals, jam sessions or just gatherings. According to Thelonious’ son Toot [also known as T.S. Monk], there are apparently some 400 hours of tapes and they’re in the possession of her family. And they will not provide access to that collection. One would hope that they are caring for that material in a way that would allow them at some point to be available for research or for people to get a sense of that time period.
The other thing that she did do through those years - she was a photographer and artist as well - she took these incredible Polaroid photos. Thousands and thousands of photos at jazz clubs, at casual gatherings, documenting things that she attended. Some of those photos were eventually published in a book a few years ago called Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats. It gives you a sense of the intimacy there was in the houses and hotel rooms where gatherings would occur. These portraits are not like the studio shots or publicity shots of famous jazz figures. They’re just images of people hanging out, relaxing and interacting. They give you a very different view of the jazz world.
Did you write the book hoping it would be read by non-jazz people?
As I started to write the book, I was focusing on her place in jazz history and mythology—here’s the legend and let’s look at the life and the reality. As I continued to work on the book, what I realized was that this was a great vehicle for exposing the average reader who is not a jazz fan to the amazing life and accomplishments of these musicians. That is what she was all about. I definitely wanted someone who read the book to see that, here’s this great colorful figure and the amazing life of someone who had all these exploits with a fairy tale life growing up on the Rothschild estate, fighting in World War II and becoming part of the New York nightlife world of the ‘50s. But as they read the story, they were going to absorb the life, accomplishments and artistry of people like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. That was definitely part of my agenda.
What jazz writers did you read coming up as a jazz fan and reader?
At about 12 or 13 years of age, I started really getting into jazz. I went to the public library in Brooklyn and started taking out LPs. I was reading the liner notes and poring over the lists of sidemen, trying to figure it all out. People like Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern and Martin Williams were invaluable. Then I started reading the New Yorker and moved on to Whitney Balliett’s writing. The book that really put it into perspective for me and a book that I still value tremendously was Marshall Stearns’ The Story of Jazz. It has this incredible narrative quality and you could just see there was someone who was exploring jazz as this cultural phenomenon.
What contemporary jazz writers do you read now?
There are so many, but if I had to pick one writer that always continues to enlighten me, it would be Gary Giddins. Gary’s work is always filled with erudition and it’s literate and culturally-informed. He’s the person I look to today to expand my own understanding.
What non-music writers or literature do you read?
I’m really into contemporary fiction. There are still writers that I have been reading for decades and to whom I still turn, like Phillip Roth, who I think is one of the great American writers. I always anticipate his next book. Among writers of my generation, there's Paul Auster, who I find intriguing. And I'm a big admirer of T.C. Boyle as well. And I delve into genre literature too, like the noir stuff and classic detective novels. I have pretty varied taste in that respect.
What about the future of print? Do you use any of the electronic readers yourself?
No, but I’m starting to get intrigued by the fact that you could carry around a hundred books in this slim device that you can carry around in a jacket pocket. It’s all happening so fast. I just happened to notice that the New York Times in their Sunday Book Review section is starting to chart this [electronic book sales]. The tipping point is here already.
It’s so scary but at the same time it offers such an opportunity. I was just reading about an app that is based on T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland and it’s one of the biggest-selling apps. It fleshes out the poem in this multi-media way. Think about that for a music book or music magazine, where you can click on an example of a piece of music as you’re reading about it, and the way that this could enrich the whole experience. It’s exciting, but for people of my generation who are so used to picking up a magazine at a newsstand or getting it in the mail or going to a bookstore and getting a book in your hands, it’s very scary.
What’s next for you as far as another book project?
I'm definitely interested in starting a new project, and have a few ideas. But nothing has quite come into focus. Right now I'm just trying to get the word out about Nica's Dream, and so far the response to the book has been very gratifying.