Too Late Blues: Nica Goes to Hollywood

The story of Cassavetes, Mingus and "the Baroness" of jazz

Pannonica de Koenigswarter with Thelonious Monk
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Charles Mingus
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Poster for "Too Late Blues"
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John Cassavetes
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A still from "Too Late Blues"
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Hollywood has always had a shaky track record when it comes to handling the transition from real life to reel life. In the run-up to this year’s Academy Awards, it’s been the cinematic depictions of President Lyndon Johnson (Selma), and U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle (American Sniper) that have been ruffling the feathers of partisans on both the left and the right.

For the moment, jazz fans have been relegated to wrangling over a psychological mentor-protégé slugfest set in a fictional New York City jazz conservatory (Whiplash). But with a film about the life of Nina Simone having already screened at Cannes, Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, now in production, and Denzel Washington’s Thelonious Monk feature said to be gathering momentum, it’s not too early to begin fretting about how Hollywood will portray a trio of the music’s most complex characters.

As a die-hard Monkophile, and the author of a biography of his patroness and muse, Baroness Pannonica (“Nica”) de Koenigswarter, it’s Washington’s long-rumored project that’s been inspiring the most prospective angst in me-not just about its portrayal of the film’s brilliant and enigmatic protagonist, but about its depiction of the so-called Jazz Baroness as well. Not that this would be the first time Nica went to Hollywood.

Most likely, movie-going jazz fans have already had a (brief) cinematic encounter with the Baroness in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Charlie Parker biopic, Bird. Although, at the time, there was some grumbling among the jazz cognoscenti about the film’s portrayal of its main subject, the 42- year-old Baroness-whose role was limited to one dimly-lit scene set in a 52nd jazz club (where she first hears about a hot new saxophonist recently arrived from Kansas City), and another recreating Parker’s death in her Stanhope Hotel suite-emerged largely unscathed. For all but the most-Nicacentric viewers, she registered simply as an elegantly accessorized, jazz-obsessed aristo with a posh British accent.

Unknown to both casual movie-goers and jazz buffs, however, Nica had actually found her way onto the silver screen three decades earlier, courtesy of the fast-rising young actor and pioneering indie director, John Cassavetes. And the considerably more detailed portrait his film offered of a thinly veiled version of the Baroness was etched in acid.

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Cassavetes and Eastwood were born just five months apart and both came of age (on opposite coasts) just as the Swing era was giving way to the revolutionary sounds of bebop. Each would also come to embrace modern jazz as a foundation for their evolving creative identities. So, in 1957, when Cassavetes, inspired by the cinematic breakthroughs of the post-war Italian Neo-realists and the French New Wave, began work on his first film as a director, the person he turned to for its score was one of the music’s most radical spirits, Charles Mingus.

Filmed guerrilla style on the gritty streets, tenements and dive bars of mid-century New York City, Cassevetes’ Shadows was a slice-of-life drama about a multiracial subculture of disaffected urban 20-somethings. Inspired by the spontaneous ethos of jazz the first-time director eschewed a written script in favor of a collaborative, and improvised, screenplay. When shooting ended, Mingus was brought in to watch the film with the expectation that, having absorbed its moments of frenzied action and angst, he would spontaneously produce a suite of musical improvisations to enhance the film’s mood.

In an unanticipated clash of cultures, however, Mingus immediately challenged Cassavetes’ assumptions. “No, man, can’t do it! Can’t do it!” he announced. “We’re artists. It’s got to be written. Man, I got to work six more months. I went to Juilliard.” But with little time (or money) to spare, Cassavetes booked three hours of studio time, hired a projectionist and set up a recording session with Mingus and his band. Arriving with only a draft of a single composition in hand, they laid down one tune, along with a couple of additional improvised fragments. Later, a desperate Cassavetes pulled together the film’s score from the Mingus date, supplemented by a few last-minute solo riffs by the saxophonist, Shafi Hadi.

When a revised version of Shadows premiered in 1959 (as part of a program titled “The Cinema of Improvisation”), it not only signaled the advent of the American independent film movement, but it established John Cassavetes’ reputation as a director to watch. So it was no surprise that he soon received a call from Paramount with an offer to write and direct his first studio feature film. And what does he chose for his subject but the story of a volatile jazz musician who rains havoc down on himself and everyone around him,

Released in 1961, Too Late Blues tells the story of a struggling progressive jazz quintet fronted by an egocentric pianist/composer named John “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin) who would rather perform in orphanages and public parks than compromise his “art.” But after being offered the chance to record his latest composition (an ethereal ballad titled “A Song After Sundown”) with unfettered creative control, Ghost agrees. It becomes clear that the commercial appeal of the recording rests on the sultry, wordless vocal performed by Jess Polanski (Stella Stevens), a vulnerable, blonde B-girl and aspiring singer who Wakefield has taken under his wing, and Ghost proceeds to sabotage the band’s big break.

Filled with self-loathing about his brush with professional success and the artistic compromises that inevitably accompany it (and ambivalent about romantic relationship with Jess), Ghost lashes out, estranging himself from everyone close to him. Kicked out of his own band, the embittered pianist becomes prey to the machinations of his jealous and manipulative agent, Benny Flowers (Everett Chambers), thus setting himself on the path to his downfall.

The linchpin of Benny’s plot takes the form of a glamorous, bejeweled and mink-wrapped women-of-a-certain-age, known as “The Countess.” A jazz-world insider with, shall we say, a “taste for young talent,” her connections can open the door to the upper echelons of the city’s elite supper clubs and nightspots. It’s a devil’s pact, and the Countess, a seductive, if slightly over the hill Mephistopheles. Ghost fulfills his part in their unspoken contract (both musically and sexually), but when the promised rewards (both material and romantic) prove shallow, he is left with nothing. According to Benny, the moral couldn’t be clearer. “You haven’t got a friend left in the world,” he taunts Ghost. “You wanna know why? You’re a bum. When an idealist sells himself out, everybody passes judgment. The bigger the idealist, the bigger the bum.”

It’s a theme that Cassavetes clearly identified with. Having made his own devil’s bargain with the studio system (Paramount had pressured him to recast the film and reshoot his downbeat ending), the director felt he had sacrificed his artistic integrity, and his film’s narrative arc clearly mirrors the director’s own fraught transition from master of his own independent vision, to simply being another cog in the Hollywood machine. As Cassavetes expressed it a decade later in a Playboy interview, “I should have made the film my way-in New York instead of California and not on an impossibly tight schedule. To do the film right, I needed six months, and I agreed to make it in 30 days-working with people who didn’t like me, didn’t trust me and didn’t care about the film.”

In hindsight, however, this verdict seems more than a little harsh. For, despite Cassavetes’ perceived compromises, Too Late Blues is filled with poignant performances, sharp dialogue, strikingly expressive B&W cinematography, some lovely music (courtesy of veteran Hollywood composer David Raskin and an all-star ensemble of West Coast jazz masters) and an aesthetic vision that, as one reviewer put it, “still bears the unmistakable imprint of its maker’s junkyard grit and unadulterated honesty.”

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When Nica arrived in New York City in the early 1950s, John Cassavetes was part of a vibrant movement of midcentury modernists (along with Monk, Kerouac, Jackson Pollack and others) who were forging an exciting new jazz-inspired “culture of spontaneity.” But while New York’s cutting-edge art scene may have represented an underground alternative to Eisenhower-era America, the old establishment still held sway over the cultural and political mainstream. And from the moment the Baroness settled in to her Stanhope Hotel suite, the Rothschild heiress, wife of a French diplomat and mother of five, would be subjected to demeaning innuendos from the guardians of the status quo.

In the spring of 1955, when Charlie Parker died in her lavishly appointed apartment, Nica’s photo was splashed across the pages of local newspapers, accompanied by lurid, racially tinged stories that cast her as an evil seductress in exotic furs and designer frocks. “Blinded and bedazzled by this luscious, slinky, black-haired, jet-eyed Circe of high society, the Yardbird was a fallen sparrow,” was how the tawdry gossip rag Expose described her role in Parker’s death. This toxic blend of race and sex would continue to stain Nica’s reputation for most of her life.

But the memoirs of an array of jazz greats (two dozen of whom wrote compositions in her honor), and interviews with musicians, journalists and jazz-world insiders who she befriended over three-plus decades, tell a very different story. For example, in 2008, when I sat down with the great singer and songwriter Jon Hendricks, who wrote a heartfelt tribute to her, titled “Little Butterfly” (set to the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica”), he described Nica as a heroic figure who was not only an unstinting benefactor to the jazz community, but someone who was able to see past the era’s pervasive racial stereotypes. “To her, Thelonious and Bird were not just ‘hip jazz musicians,'” Hendricks told me, “they were great cultural artists. And she treated them that way.” Monk was even more succinct. In a conversation with a fellow musician late in his life, he simply called Nica “the best friend I ever had.”

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Having been disparaged by the film critics and disavowed by its director, Too Late Blues remained commercially unavailable for over half a century. Although I had come across references to a character known only as “The Countess” hovering in the background of Cassavetes’ studio debut, it wasn’t until late 2012, following its release on DVD, that I was finally able to see the film.

As I watched Ghost fall into the clutches of the fading, jazz-obsessed aristocrat, it immediately became clear that Cassavetes had appropriated the persona of the real-life Baroness as the model for his fictional Countess. What was less obvious was why the filmmaker-who had haunted the hip Greenwich Village nightspots, rubbing shoulders with “the night people, the jazz musicians, the drifters and dreamers” (as he put it a voice-over for the Too Late Blues trailer)-would recycle a caricature of Nica that had been fabricated by the most retrograde of those 1950s scandal sheets.

Once again, it seems, the lingering penumbra of Shadows had cast itself onto Cassavetes’ new film. It’s a story that appears in Ross Lipman’s extended essay, “Mingus, Cassavetes and the Birth of a Jazz Cinema,” published in The Journal of Film Music. As part of his blow-by-blow account of the recording session that almost derailed the young director’s debut, Lipman came up with a tantalizing detail that had first appeared in a 1984 interview Cassavetes did for the British music magazine Wire. Looking back over the span of a quarter of a century to that disastrous day, Lipman recounts that “a seemingly snide Cassavetes ‘grinned at the recollection of Mingus and his retinue (arriving)-the jazz patroness Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter on one arm, a string of foxes on the other.'”

The seemingly anomalous presence of the charismatic Baroness must have made quite an impression on the distraught Cassavetes as he locked horns with an artist whose ideas about jazz and artistic integrity were at least as intense as his own. And over the next two years, as the director’s concept for Too Late Blues evolved, his film’s central theme-the need to preserve one’s creative identity against the onslaughts of materialism-would find its foil in the character of “The Countess.”

Every dramatic narrative, whether fact-based or purely fictional, demands conflict between opposing forces, and every hero needs a villain. Nor should history be held hostage to a single vision of the truth. In creating the character of “The Countess,” Cassavetes shaped reality to achieve his creative vision, all in service to a larger truth. What more can one ask of an artist?

But as with the recent controversies over the cinematic representation of Lyndon Johnson and Chris Kyle, it’s also clear that accounts of recent history can incite passions that their creators may not have anticipated. And inhabitants of marginalized subcultures tend to be more impassioned than most (as we’ve seen the recent kerfuffle over Whiplash). So, sure there’s trepidation about the prospect of Hollywood’s depictions of Miles, Monk, Nina Simone and the Baroness. The trick is not to expect reel life-whether in a straight-up biopic, or one of those “inspired by the life of” hybrids-to conform to some elusive ideal of real life.

David Kastin is the author of Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness (Norton), recipient of the 2011 Deems Taylor Award for Outstanding Biography.

Nica Filmography

Bird (Clint Eastwood,1988)-A few months before her death, the 74-year-old Baroness attended the film’s MoMA premiere. Her only documented response was limited to a quibble about the actress who played her. “I thought she looked like a constipated horse,” Nica wrote an old friend. Clint, on the other hand, she deemed, “REMARKABLY cool.”

Too Late Blues (John Cassavetes,1961)-A high-quality DVD/Blu-ray transfer of Cassavetes’ under-appreciated studio debut finally became available through Olive Films in 2012.

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Bruce Ricker, 1988)-Clips of the real-life Baroness enliven this indispensable documentary of Monk. The B&W footage of Nica was originally shot in the late 1960s by the Blackwood brothers for a German television show about the pianist. Later color scenes of Nica’s Weehawken lair show off its Hudson River view (and reveal how it got its jazz-world nickname, “The Cathouse”).

The Jazz Baroness (Hannah Rothschild, 2008)-Originally produced for the BBC by Nica’s grandniece, the feature-length documentary does a good job of exploring Nica’s privileged childhood, and her service in the Free French forces during WWII. It’s less successful in its attempt to document her 30-year reign as New York’s “Jazz Baroness.”