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David Kastin: Nica’s Dream - The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness

Chris May By

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Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness

David Kastin

W.W.Norton

ISBN: 9780393069402

Hardcover, 336 pages

2012

Wonderful woman, wonderful book. David Kastin's assiduously researched biography of Baroness Kathleen Annie Panonnica Rothschild de Koenigswarter (1913-88) brilliantly relates the life of the London-born heiress and last great private patron of American jazz—the "Nica" of Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica," Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," Sonny Clark's "Nica," Gigi Gryce's "Nica's Tempo," Freddie Redd's "Nica Steps Out" and another dozen or so compositions.

Along the way, Kastin received practically no assistance from the Rothschilds. De Koenigswarter's rejection of her aristocratic European background, and lifelong embrace of the New York jazz world following her separation from her husband and her move to NYC in 1953, was an embarrassment to her family while she was alive, and continues to be one today. The only Rothschild willing to help the author was de Koenigswarter's great niece, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, whose own The Baroness will be published by Virago in May, 2012.

Kastin's book, extensively informed by interviews with de Koenigswarter's surviving friends, and the descendants of others who have passed, portrays a woman who was loved by musicians primarily because both she and her passion for jazz were "real." Sure, her beauty may have helped her gain entrance to the hermetic world of the musicians, but neither her beauty nor her financial generosity can alone explain the deep affection in which she is universally held by those who knew her. "She was royalty," the singer and lyricist Jon Hendricks told Kastin, "and she had come into the West and had embraced the art form of America's most despised people. For her to do that showed a very large heart and a huge concept of what is real and what is not. And when you arrive at that, you show a great awareness of the truly important things of life and you dismiss all the racism that stuffs the ears and warps the mind."

Like the noblest jazz musician, De Koenigswarter did everything on her own terms, without concern for the consequences or the social niceties. Saxophonist Charlie Parker died in her suite in the Stanhope hotel—"Bop King Dies in Heiress' Flat" screamed the headline in the New York Daily Mirror on March 15, 1955—which she was consequently asked to vacate by the management. Her "unsavory" visitors also subsequently got her evicted from suites in the Bolivar and Alonquin hotels.

Gossip columnists of the time had a field day with de Koenigswarter, insinuating that she was a junkie (while she almost certainly enjoyed a joint, Chivas Regal was her recreational drug of choice) or a "loose" white woman attracted to black "rough trade." In fact, Parker was never de Koenigswarter's lover, and nor was her closest friend, the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, who, during his final, mentally stricken years, lived in her Bauhaus eerie atop the Palisades in Weehawken, New Jersey, where de Koenigswarter cared for him until his death.

De Koenigswarter was, in saxophonist Sonny Rollins' words, "a heroic woman," and in the words of a club owner, "a lighthouse in a storm." And it is easy, reading this vivid biography, to fall in love with her yourself. One of her attractive qualities was her refusal to be anyone but herself: she saw no reason to disguise her origins as a high-born European. Late one night, driving down Seventh Avenue in a newly acquired Bentley Drophead Coupe with Monk, his wife, Nellie, and pianist Hampton Hawes, trumpeter Miles Davis pulled alongside in his Mercedes-Benz sports car.

"Want to race?" Davis asked.

After expressing her willingness, de Koenigswarter turned around to announce in her cut-glass English accent, "This time I believe I'm going to beat the motherfucker."

Stories like this—and there are many of them in Kastin's book, adding color to the meticulous research—are more than endearing.

No review of Nica's Dream should end without this final accolade for Kastin. Not once, during 300 pages peopled with musicians such as Monk, Parker and Rollins, does the author use the words "icon" or "iconic." Bravo!

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