The Jazz Baroness
It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. - William Somerset Maugham
The preceding quote could very well be used to describe the Baroness Pannonica ("Nica") Rothschild de Koenigswarter’s attitude toward her decidedly eccentric lifestyle. The Baroness is the subject of The Jazz Baroness, which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO2. Written, directed, and produced by the Baroness’ great-niece, Hannah Rothschild, this film was originally conceived by the younger Rothschild as an attempt to understand her mysterious fish-out-of-water relative. What Hannah ended up doing was detailing the complex (and most likely unconsummated) twenty-eight-year relationship between Rothschild and jazz/bebop legend, Thelonious Monk.
The daughter of über-wealthy European Jews, Nica escaped from Nazi-occupied France with her five children. After supporting the Free French, Nica traveled to the United States and almost immediately immersed herself into the emerging bebop scene in New York City. She eventually became a beloved patron to musicians like Charlie “Birdman” Parker and Tommy Flanagan. She crossed paths with Monk, the musically gifted son of impoverished sharecroppers, and spent most of the next three decades at his side providing much needed emotional and financial support to the mentally ill and drug-addicted Monk.
Using a well-edited mix of photographs, archival footage of Monk’s performances, and letters from Nica (read by Helen Mirren), Hannah ends up presenting us with a keenly rendered portrait of two quirky people who, under most circumstances, never would have crossed paths, let alone become intimate friends. The film doesn’t over-sentimentalize its subjects. It doesn’t pass judgment on their sometimes unacceptable behavior either. The baby photo montage at the beginning of the film subtly contrasts the drastically different childhoods of the two friends while the reminiscences of their friends exposes the odd things the two had in common—mainly mentally ill fathers and domineering mothers.
I loved the cinematography; the film is filled with absolutely gorgeous shots of the New York City skyline and the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan. The blue/gray/sepia palette of the shots enhance the mournful jazz score. Combined, these elements give the viewer a feel for the seedy-glamorous world of 1950s bebop.
I also liked how the filmmaker skillfully placed the story of Nica and Thelonious within a wider historical context. Dealing with institutionalized prejudices like racism, sexism, and antisemitism most definitely intensified the bond between these two extraordinary people.
That’s not to say that The Jazz Baroness is a perfect film. I took issue with the fact that the talking head interviewees—Quincy Jones, Amiri Baraka, and Thelonious Monk, Jr. among them—were almost entirely men. This left me wondering what type of relationship Nica had with her female contemporaries, or if she even had any. I also wondered how Monk’s long-suffering wife Nellie fit into this dynamic. Although most of Monk’s friends claim Nellie loved Nica, I found myself wondering if Nellie harbored resentment, however well-concealed, toward the Baroness. But Hannah did not properly explore this aspect of the relationship.
All told, I was entertained and educated by The Jazz Baroness, which is no mean feat for a documentary.