Documentary About Nica & Monk Airing on HBO2 Starting November 25

Pannonica "Nica" Rothschild. Photo courtesy HBO
The Jazz Baroness 3.jpg - Pannonica "Nica" Rothschild. Photo: Documents Francis and Stephane Paudras/HBO
Pannonica moth in Natural History Museum, London Photo Courtesy:  HBO

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The music of Thelonious Monk is without question sui generis in jazz and American culture. Impossible to define or duplicate, Monk’s music remains both a mystery and a revelation. Now, with the recent publishing of Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk, jazz fans have an opportunity to get to know the man behind the music. Kelley’s book shows that, contrary to the mythology of Monk as the eccentric loner and genius, he was in fact closely connected to his family as well as the world at large. And one of his closest connections, personally and professionally, outside his family was the Baroness Pannonica Rothschild, known familiarly as “Nica,” who acted as a patron, escort, gatekeeper and eventually guardian for the pianist during the last decade or so of his life. Named by her father for a rare species of moth, Nica was a direct descendant of the wealthy and famous Rothschild family, though she lived much of her life in estrangement from those scions of European power and influence.

Now the story of her life as well as her relationship with Monk and other jazz musicians is being told in new documentary airing on HBO2, beginning on Wednesday, November 25. The Jazz Baroness was written, produced and directed by Hannah Rothschild, a British filmmaker with family ties to the subject: Nica was her great-aunt. Interestingly, Rothschild knew little about Nica beyond what was known in the public and whispered within the family: that Nica lived with jazz musicians and dozens of cats, that twenty songs were written for her, that Charlie Parker died in her apartment. Rothschild decided to find out the real story and this film documents that ten-year search to solve the puzzle of Nica’s life.

Rothschild interviews many jazz musicians and industry insiders, including Sonny Rollins, Roy Haynes, Chico Hamilton, Quincy Jones, Clint Eastwood, Dan Morgenstern, Ira Gitler, Harry Columby and T.S. (Toot) Monk. She also speaks with various family members who would consent to speaking on camera (several did not).. The contrast between those interviews can be both illuminating and jarring. In the press materials sent with the advance copy of the film, Rothschild says, “Everyone agreed on one thing: her great love, the man with whom she lived for ten years, for whom she went to prison, was the resolutely individual high priest of bebop, Thelonious Monk.” Nica’s devotion to Monk as man and musician is vividly illustrated not only by the testimony of their associates, but also by Nica’s own writings voiced here by renowned actress Helen Mirren. At times, the sheer volume and variety of interviews, coupled with the divergent archival footage, bog the story down, but the filmmaker’s very personal narration helps to keep things in focus. No matter. Any jazz fan viewing this film is sure to come away with a more nuanced picture of Nica, Monk and the jazz scene of New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. For more information about Nica and the documentary, visit the film’s web site.

Besides the original airdate of Wednesday, November 25 (8:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT) on HBO2, the film will also have these additional airdates: Mon. Nov. 29 (8:00 a.m.), Tues. Nov. 30 (3:00 p.m.), Thurs. Dec. 3 (6:30 p.m.), Fri. Dec. 11 (7:45 a.m.), Wed. Dec. 16 (1:30 p.m.).

It will also be available on HBO On Demand for one month after Nov. 25.