A couple of weeks ago Bernard Gordillo, who writes the WFIU early-music show Harmonia, mentioned a recent interest in Pannonica de Koenigswarter, also known as Nica, the Jazz Baroness, or simply the Baroness. The Baroness was a sort of jazz patron, a woman well-liked by the jazz musicians she befriended on the mid-20th-century New York bebop scene; she counted Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk among her closest companions from that community. As a wealthy white woman spending time in the company of African-American jazz artists, she was the target of a stigmatization that only increased when Parker died in her apartment in 1955. Such social and media rebukes hardly mattered to Nica, who valued jazz and the musicians who made it so much that she regularly welcomed them into her home, hosting jam sessions and even taking a marijuana-bust rap for Monk (who spent his last years, reclusive and silent, living at Nica’s house in New Jersey).
Today the BBC aired a half-hour documentary about the Baroness, produced by her great-niece Hannah Rothschild, who says she spent 15 years working on the piece. It sounds like it; interviews with Monk’s son and the author of his forthcoming biography (Robin D.G. Kelley) as well as jazz-writer and Baroness friends Dan Morgenstern and Ira Gitler are featured, along with compelling audio of the Baroness herself and Thelonious Monk. To listen to The Jazz Baroness on BBC Radio 4, follow the link and go to the “Tuesday Pick of the Day”–the show will be archived there (as well as here) for the next seven days. One of these days I’m going to do a Night Lights show centered around all of the jazz tributes that were recorded for the Baroness–but it won’t hold a candle to this moving, beautifully crafted BBC special.
(Many thanks to UK resident and Night Lights listener Bill Forbes, who hipped me to this program.)