BOOK REVIEW: ‘Nica’s Dream’

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NICA‘S DREAM: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF THE JAZZ BARONESS
By David Kastin
Norton, $26.95, 272 pages

Late at night in Manhattan many years ago, while I was stopped at a light, a Rolls-Royce pulled up in the right lane. My friend, an actor and jazz drummer who normally was the personification of cool, almost lost his. “Oh my! It’s the Baroness and Monk!” he exclaimed.

I knew who Thelonius Monk was, but the woman at the wheel was a mystery to me, so my friend explained that she was a rich woman from Europe who loved jazz and befriended its players. In 1955, the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker had died in her apartment at the elegant Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Apparently, there had been no foul play nor any romantic attachment, but in the ‘50s, the fact that a black jazz musician had died in her expensive home was more than enough to stamp a permanent question mark on her reputation.

The light changed, and off she drove. In all the years since then, I’ve thought of this mystery woman from time to time but seldom read anything about her. So I was pleased to discover this excellent biography of the late jazz baroness, whose full name was Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter. Not surprisingly, she preferred Nica.

The author, David Kastin, is a music historian and educator who has written for Downbeat and the Village Voice and whose previous book, “I Hear America Singing,” is an introduction to popular music. He knows the jazz scene well, and he treats the baroness with careful respect, providing the full picture of a most unusual woman who did a most unusual thing at a time when people simply did not do such. At the age of 50, having fallen in love with jazz (as a result of hearing Teddy Wilson play the piano) she left her husband and five children in France and moved to the United States to immerse herself in the world of jazz and befriend its practitioners.

She arrived in New York City in 1953, a transitional time for modern jazz, and for the next 3 1/2 decades was a fixture at all the top clubs. When her aristocrat husband - then-France’s ambassador to Canada - learned that Parker had died in his wife’s apartment, he divorced her. In a classic of understatement, she later told Max Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard, “Jazz didn’t do my marriage any good.”

Mr. Kastin does a fine job of chronicling his subject’s impressive background and extensive accomplishments in what might be called her first life, the one she lived before she followed her syncopated musical muse to the States.

Born a Rothschild - her great-great grandfather was Nathan Mayer Rothschild, the one who made the piles of money that his descendants managed so well - she married Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, from a prominent and aristocratic Austro-Hungarian Jewish family. Jules fell for the irrepressible Nica when he saw her alight from her own airplane, in which she had recently flown the English Channel. They moved to Paris, where the first of their five children was born in 1937.

During the war that soon engulfed Europe, both Nica and her husband were part of the Resistance in France. After the war, she happened to hear a recording of Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and the die was cast. She would never be satisfied unless she changed the course of her life, moved to New York and became a patroness of this exciting music called jazz.

So that’s what she did, and what a life hers became. Night after night, her silver Rolls convertible would be parked, often erratically, in front of one jazz club or another, from the Vanguard to the Five Spot. As Mr. Kastin points out, her ear was quite good, and the musicians soon came to appreciate her for that as well as for all her financial favors, which were legion.

When the clubs closed, she opened up her beautiful apartment, initially at the Stanhope until the management ran out of patience. The music was great, but the frequent live-in guests, plus the noise and the crowds and the booze (and drugs) were not. She moved to the legendary Algonquin, where the same scene was repeated, and she had to leave there, too, decamping for a house in New Jersey just across and on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. There, in addition to many musicians and sometimes also their families, she cared for and fed a cat population that eventually reached 30.

Nica’s Dream” will appeal not just to lovers of jazz but to anyone who appreciates a well-told story about interesting if decidedly eccentric people. Along the way, one is treated to a discourse on jazz and its stars, with many of them contributing their thoughts - and favorite anecdotes - about the baroness.

At the end of the book, Mr. Kastin asks Nica’s younger friend, the pianist Joel Forrester, what motivated her.

“It’s not a vexed question, I don’t think,” Mr. Forrester explains. “Simply put, she followed her heart.”

John Greenya is the author of “Blood Relations: The Exclusive Inside Story of the Benson Family Murders” (Harcourt, 1987).

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