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Nica’s Dream

A review of David Kastin’s biography of Pannonica de Koenigswarter

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Pannonica de Koenigswarter with Thelonious Monk

Like a classic Hollywood movie, the history of jazz is memorable not just for its stars, but also for the supporting players, and few are more memorable than the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a British aristocrat who walked away from a life of privilege to become “patron saint for a couple of generations of ‘jazzophiles.'” David Kastin has wisely chosen her as the subject of his book Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, a well-written and engaging volume that nevertheless sometimes frustrates in the manner in which it occasionally sidelines the Baroness, rendering her a supporting player in her own story.

Born an heir of the house of Rothschild, “Nica” married into a baroness’ title, bore five children and served as a translator and broadcaster during World War II, but in many ways her life really began with an early encounter with Duke Ellington’s tone poem “Black, Brown and Beige.” Thus commenced a love affair with jazz that led her to spend the rest of her life (she died in 1988) as an old-school patron of the arts, providing promotional support, rehearsal space, food and shelter to an extensive list of the music’s greats. Among her most notable beneficiaries were Charlie Parker, whose death in her hotel suite sparked a scandal that helped end her marriage, and Thelonious Monk, whose well-being and musical ascendancy the Baroness made into a lifelong project. She attended Monk’s gigs, worked with manager Harry Colomby on the best presentations for his music, and eventually took him into her modernist Weehawken, N.J. home when even living with his own family proved too much for him. For her sacrifices, she lives on as the namesake of “Pannonica,” one of Monk’s most beloved compositions.

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