Documentary, made by her great niece, about the British Jewish baroness Pannonica Rothschild, whose life was changed when she fell in love with the jazz genius Thelonious Monk.
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This programme contains very strong language
'Good evening, everybody.
'This is Nica's Tempo and tonight,
'we're coming to you direct from the Five Spot Cafe.
'And that beautiful music you hear
'is coming from Thelonious Monk and his Quartet.'
JAZZ PIANO MUSIC
'Very glad to be here today.
'I would like to play a little tune
'I just composed not so long ago, entitled Pannonica.
'It was named after...
'this beautiful lady here,
'I think her father gave her that name...
'..after a butterfly...
'that he tried to catch. I don't think he caught the butterfly.
'But anyway, here's the number I composed, named after her.
MUSIC: "Pannonica" by Thelonious Monk
This is the story of a love affair between a man and woman,
whose background and experiences, whose culture and class,
were so different
that the chances of their even meeting was extremely unlikely.
She was Pannonica Rothschild,
a British-born heiress from a powerful, wealthy, Jewish dynasty.
He, Thelonious Sphere Monk, was the descendant of West African
slaves, and his only material advantage was musical genius.
After their first meeting in 1954,
Monk and Nica were hardly ever apart, and Monk lived here,
in Nica's house, for the last 10 years of his life.
'She was my great-aunt, but I'd never even heard of her
'until I spotted her name in our family records.
'But no one could, or would, tell me much about Nica.
'Except that she'd decided that the life she was born into wasn't for her.
'And she'd reinvented herself in another continent.
'From an early age, I felt I couldn't fit into my illustrious family, and
'would never live up to their high expectations - real or imaginary.
'Was Nica a possible role model for me?
'Could her life show me some options, and another way to live?
'But the first thing I had to do was to find out more about the life
'that Nica was born into, and what it was she was leaving behind.'
You have two minutes on the history of the House of Rothschild, starting now.
Which Rothschild lent £4 million to Disraeli
-for the purchase of Suez Canal shares?
Correct. Which Buckinghamshire chateau did the French architect
Destailleur design for Ferdinand de Rothschild in the late 1870s?
-Correct. Which part of the House of Commons procedure prevented
Lionel, elected MP in 1847, from taking his seat for 11 years?
-The oath of abjugation.
-Yes - he refused to take it.
In the 1880s, in which famous London street did the Rothschilds
own four mansions at the same time?
Which vineyard in the Medoc region did Baron James purchase in 1868?
'It would be many years before I could create a quiz about Nica.
'How many cats did Nica own?'
I think it was 306.
'Which legendary jazz musician died in Nica's apartment?'
'What did Nica serve from a teapot?'
'When she was a child, who taught Nica magic tricks?'
'How were the early Rothschilds portrayed in an Oscar-nominated film?'
If anything should happen, all that money - 10,000...
'Who asked Nica's grandfather for a significant loan?'
The Royal Family came to your grandfather and said...
crying the blues, begging...
And you laid the bread on so he could beat Napoleon. Right?
And threw in the Suez Canal.
It changed the world.
But that was over in Europe.
I'm your President, I tell people who you are.
She's a billionaire!
One of the Rothschilds.
Your aunt fell in love with my dad.
I have no doubt about that.
I feel like he supplied emphasis for her coming to America.
She was profoundly moved by his music and his personality -
he was a good-looking cat, she was a hotty.
'I didn't meet Nica until 1984.
'I cold-called her from a phone-box in New York.
'"Hi", I said nervously, "I'm your great-niece".
'"Hi", she replied, in a most un-great-aunt-like kind of way.
'"Meet me at a club downtown at 1am".'
'"How will I find it?" I asked.
'"Just look out for the Bentley". And then she hung up.
'The car was badly parked outside a small club,
'and Nica sat alone at a table nearest the stage.
'I warned her there were some tramps drinking beer in her Bentley outside.
'"Oh good", she said.
'"That means no one will steal it".'
'Realising that I knew nothing about jazz,
'Nica sent me albums, including this one, Thelonica -
'a musical tribute to her relationship with Monk, made by their mutual friend, Tommy Flanagan.
'And here's another record, Monk's Brilliant Corners,
'composed shortly after the two met,
'and containing musical contributes to his new friend, Pannonica.
'There are over 20 songs composed for Nica by different musicians.
'Real glamour, I reckon,
'isn't about Bentleys or fur coats or silver dishes,
'it's about being able to walk down 52nd Street
'and hear, in one night,
'so many great musicians play tunes dedicated to you.
'But four years after we met, Nica died,
'leaving so many unposed, unanswered questions.
'None of her five children wish to talk to me about their mother.
'Nor did other members of my family.'
'What do you, Hannah, want to achieve by your film?
'Is it just publicity?'
'Are you sure you're going to be all right with the family if you
'endeavour to get through this?'
I don't know if I'm going to be all right.
But I think it has to be told.
Sure, it should be.
But I'm saying, somebody's not going to like this.
'But then, the Rothschilds had to be good at keeping secrets.
'Secrets kept them alive in the pogroms. And in the ghettos.
'And during the Holocaust.
'Secrets helped them create a great fortune.
'But Nica wasn't that secretive.
'She gave interviews.
'She wrote about her experiences.
'She tried to publish her photographs.
'And she appears in this documentary, Straight No Chaser.
'I wondered if there was one catalyst, one event that inspired
'Nica to leave everything familiar and start a new life in New York.
'One day, a lost interview appeared.
'Sitting in a New York hotel room, I heard Nica telling the producer
'Bruce Ricker about the moment that changed her life.'
It was in the late 1940s.
I was on my way back to Mexico,
where I was living with my husband and family at that time.
On my way to the airport, I stopped off to see my friend, Teddy Wilson.
He said, "Have you heard this record, Round Midnight?"
Well, I'd never even heard of Thelonious.
He said, "You can't leave without hearing it,"
and he galloped off somewhere to get the record.
I couldn't believe my ears.
I'd never heard anything remotely like it.
I made him play it 20 times in a row.
Missed my plane, and never went back to Mexico.
Driving around New York late at night, I wondered how one track
on one record could have such a mesmerising effect on a person.
Is it that Round Midnight, with its mournful, haunting chords,
captures feelings of loneliness?
Of being away from home?
Of not belonging?
Did it trigger something in my great aunt?
She wasn't alone in loving this record.
Round Midnight has become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time.
This was the vinyl version of a spell being cast on someone.
Except that it's not a spell that arrives by itself.
It's a spell that's assisted by you.
So that you keep going back to it.
She kept getting deeper and deeper into it as she heard it.
From that point on,
she had concluded that she was going to have to meet the guy
who played this music.
NICA: "But you see I didn't meet Thelonious until two years after that, in 1954.
"I heard he was playing in Paris, so I got on a plane and I got there
"just in time to hear his first overseas concert.
"And I went backstage afterwards.
"Mary Lou Williams introduced me to him.
"But we hung out for the rest of the time he was there.
"We had a ball for about a week."
Until Monk's death 28 years later, they were hardly apart.
If they brought the time machine out, that's one
I would like to get in and go see.
The time that they met.
Because it had to be remarkable.
See, she was a complete European.
Nothing about her was anything other than a European.
Monk... See, he grew up in New York, but he was from North Carolina.
Monk was a country negro.
-The tenant farmers and their families live on the plantation.
Each family has a small house,
which they rent together with a section of land.
A few tenants pay their rent in money.
But most tenant farmers on the plantations
work their portion of land in return for a share of the crop.
'I found out that Monk, like Charlie Parker, Coltrane,
'Dizzy Gillespie and others, was from the south.
'And they brought their musical heritage with them
'to the northern metropolises.
'No-one knows which part of Africa Monk's ancestors come from.
'But it is known he was born in 1917, in Rocky Mount,
'The church played a key role in his life,
'and the strains of gospel, blues and stride suffuse all his music.
'Monk's father was an amateur musician, a difficult husband
'and a manic depressive, who was incarcerated
'for the last two decades of his life in a mental asylum.
'Barbara Monk, a formidable matriarch, kept the family together.
'In 1922, she took her children to New York in search of a better life.
'Monk lived with her until her death in 1955, a year after he met Nica.
'Nica was born on December 10th, 1913.'
MUSIC: "The Blue Danube" By Johann Strauss
It seemed like it was another life.
I remember her telling me that her father built a house
somewhere on a hill. And the house was far away from the local town.
I mean, she would say it so matter-of-factly.
And I would say, "Wha-at?"
NICA: "At Rothschild houses like Waddesdon, no-one bothered to pick cherries.
"It was seen as far more elegant to have the gardeners carry the
"actual trees around the table, so we could choose which fruit we wanted.
"At breakfast, guests were offered a choice of Longhorn,
"Shorthorn or Jersey milk with their tea.
"It was quite normal to have kings, queens and world leaders to stay."
'Here is King Edward.
'And former Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, Anthony Asquith
'and Arthur Balfour.
'And here is George V.
'And on the opposite page, Pannonica Rothschild.'
NICA: "My father, Charles, worked diligently, as was expected,
"in our family bank, but was much happier studying the life-cycle of insects.
"He met my mother hunting rare fleas and butterflies
"in the Carpathian Mountains.
"Rozsika was a famous beauty,
"tennis champion and from an impoverished Jewish family.
"We were all absolutely terrified of her."
According to Monk, Charles Rothschild had called his daughter
after a butterfly that he caught.
So there was a chance that the original specimen might still be in
the enormous Rothschild collection that used to be housed at Tring,
Nica's childhood home.
This was the gigantic collection that Lord Rothschild amassed.
Collections that were more comprehensive and larger than our own.
Now, this is roughly where we want to be for Pannonica.
No, no, we've gone off beam again.
Here we go. Here is Pannonica.
There she is.
This was collected in 1913.
1913, the year of Nica's birth.
'I'd been expecting something more dazzling,
'not this delicate little creature whose pale yellow wings
'looked like they had been dipped in Chateau Lafitte.
'What I certainly wasn't expecting
'was to find out that it wasn't a butterfly at all, it was a moth.'
As the daughter of an obsessive entomologist,
Nica would have known she was a moth,
but perhaps she thought butterflies sounded more romantic,
or perhaps it suited her not
to give everything away, to preserve the mystery, her version of secrets.
I asked my father to tell me about those four children -
his father Victor and his aunts.
There was Nica, who...
was eccentric and developed this tremendous love
of jazz and was one of the great patronesses of jazz
of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and beyond.
Then came my father, Victor, who was a distinguished scientist
and ran the think-tank for the British government.
Then there was Liberty, who was schizophrenic, I'm afraid.
Then the eldest was Miriam, who was a great naturalist and scientist.
-We were brought up in great luxury,
but no liberty and a lot of discipline and regular things
and dull food in the nursery and so forth, very immaculately cooked.
Monday was the fish, Tuesday was the egg, Wednesday was the fish,
Thursday was the egg, Friday was the fish, Saturday was the egg.
It was always the same.
We were dressed - first a vest and we had a thing called a bodice and
there was a ribbon round the waist which threaded in and out
and I had blue ribbons and my sister had pink ribbons.
Then we went along to see my mother,
then we knelt down by her bed and said our prayers which always ended,
"And make me a good little girl, Amen."
That was a ritual which happened every day.
We were kept very,
very secluded and sheltered.
The lessons we had with the governess - my father
detested schools, which he thought were like David Copperfield,
so one had absolutely no education at all.
NICA: "We were moved from one great country house to another
"in the germless community of reserved Pullman coaches,
"while being guarded night and day by a regiment of nurses,
"governesses, tutors, footmen, valets, chauffeurs and grooms.
"Unlike me, Thelonious was a child prodigy, as his report
"shows, winning a scholarship to this prestigious Peter Stuyvesant school.
"Musically he was a genius -
"a useful skill for an African American whose options were limited."
I had to decide whether I was going to be a musician or be a pimp,
one of the two.
At 9, 10, 11 years old, I used to shine shoes.
That's how I bought my first set of drums.
I'd go out on a Wednesday and Saturday from school.
I'd stay out all day Saturday until I made a dollar.
In some respects, Nica's own options were just as limited.
Youth, for Rothschild women,
was just a waiting room for marriage and motherhood.
They were barred from working in the bank
and university wasn't an option.
At 18, Nica was launched into society at a whirligig of parties
known to some as the London season.
Her mission was to go husband hunting.
There were four dances a week - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.
In a way it was just like going to the office, I suppose.
You couldn't do anything else, it was a full-time job.
It was just what happened.
I loved it. Does that sound very bad? My sister
guiltily enjoyed it, although she was tremendously...
against what the French called sins sexuelle de la recherche,
anything of that sort.
And she couldn't help enjoying it.
My sister Unity even went to dances.
She used to take a rat with her.
What did she do with the rat?
It was her pet rat, it was always around.
From the word go, Nica fell under
music's spell and her first love was the band leader Jack Harris.
NICA: "There was a sax player called Bob Wise, taught me to fly.
"But not navigation, so I had to rely on roads and railways,
"which was cool, if it was a clear day.
"This horrified Jules, my future husband,
"who was a stickler for the rules."
The couple met at Le Touquet and conducted an airborne romance.
Jules was a mining engineer, a banker, and also Jewish.
He was 10 years older and a widower, but was so sure about his
affections for Nica that he proposed within three months.
Nica ran away immediately to New York to consider his offer.
It was the first of many times that she'd use the city as a refuge.
And here is their wedding certificate from October 1935,
found in City Hall, New York.
The couple set up home in France at the Chateau Abondant
near Normandy, where they started a family.
HITLER SPEAKS GERMAN
In the same year that their first son Patrick was born,
the Nuremberg race laws stripping Jews of all rights was passed.
Soon after Janka, their first daughter, was born,
the Germans had entered Sudetenland and on one single night
more than 1,000 synagogues were burned to the ground
and 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and taken to concentration camps.
One of our aunts was caught in the Holocaust.
She had a terrible time, she was 80 and blind
and she was taken off into a death train and when they arrived
at Auschwitz they were pulled out of the train by guards with meat hooks,
and beaten to death.
As a member of the most prominent European Jewish family,
Nica, by remaining in France, was in increasing physical danger.
NICA: "When Jules went to war, he left me alone at the chateau
"with a hand-drawn map.
"I managed to escape with the children on one of the last boats.
"Then I took them to America.
"My mother in law refused to leave France.
"She was captured, sent to Auschwitz,
"where she died."
In England, the government asked Nica's brother Victor,
as head of the British jury,
to give his response to the events unfolding in Europe.
The Jews will do something they already do.
They will help this country to be strong and able to resist anybody
who tries to attack it.
In fact, they will do their bit, like all good Englishmen should.
NICA: "I left the children in Long Island and managed to smuggle myself on a
"plane to Africa, where Jules was fighting with the Free French.
"I enlisted as a private, driving ambulances, decoding broadcasting.
"Then we were sent to Germany.
"I caught the last days of the Reich, just before Hitler did himself in.
"I had a luckier escape than many."
One uncle survived, in Hungary, in a concentration camp,
when he left he was six foot two and he weighed five stone,
so you can imagine what he looked like.
He came and lived with me in Oxford.
Looking back, I really didn't ask him many questions,
cos one was frightened of asking
people from concentration camps questions,
because it was difficult for them to speak of the horrors.
Meanwhile, Monk, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker,
was cooking up a musical revolution called bebop.
Music you couldn't dance, or sing, or even swing to -
music that screamed of a new individualism.
Right? They're different.
Basically, that's the difference.
People like Charlie Parker and Monk
exemplified a great audience who didn't want to
accept a lot of the things that jazz musicians were forced to accept.
Bebop represented a change from the show business
aspect of this great music.
The people that played bebop wanted to be accepted...
..as full-fledged human beings, not just talented artists.
There was something about the way they played -
that they didn't seem to care what the audience thought,
you were there to listen.
They didn't cater to the audience too much.
America had just fought the war of freedom, and soldiers,
black and white, had gone to liberate Europe.
And yet, black soldiers returning to America could not enter the front
door of the restaurant they were performing in.
They couldn't sleep in white hotels when they performed
on the bandstand of those hotels - they had to sleep in other hotels.
There had to have been a phenomenal amount of rage,
dissonance, and the artist's role is to call attention to that.
Nica, somehow, years before everyone else, started to embrace it.
Women had also fought for freedom,
and were equally frustrated by the lack of change.
'Carol, who is now Mrs Bill Johnson, took a general home economics course.
'Not one which would lead to professional employment,
'but one which fitted her for that very important career of being Mrs Johnson.'
When the critic Nat Hentoff asked Nica why her marriage
went wrong, she replied, "My husband liked military drum music.
"He hated jazz. He used to break my records when I was late for dinner.
"I was frequently late for dinner."
She found more and more excuses to visit New York,
and then she heard Thelonious Monk.
But who was this mysterious Thelonious Monk?
A man whose first language was silence.
The pianist who seemed to attack the piano with every part of his body.
Thelonious was the high priest or archbishop of bebop,
but he was the father of modern jazz.
Because it's the harmonic possibilities that
Thelonious brought to the table that freed...the Charlie Parkers,
and the John Coltranes
and the Dizzy Gillespies from the chains of popular American music.
Monk's bass player said, "Man,
"I've played with piano players who play on all the white keys,
"I've played with piano players who played on all the black keys,
"but, man, I ain't never played with no mother
"who played in-between the cracks." He was talking about Monk.
You could never tire of listening to someone like Monk because he's
so imaginative and so unpredictable.
He hits a note that you're not supposed to hit,
when he runs out of those he bangs the keyboard with his elbow.
And I'm sure someone like Nica, she would have been having that
feeling all the time, and that's enough to make you want to stay.
NICA: "What can I say?
"If there are seven wonders in this world,
"then I think Thelonious was the eighth.
"He helped you see the music inside the music,
"and his music itself helped me see possibilities in life and ways of
"living that I never dreamed of."
She believed he was a genius the first day she heard him play.
And she never wavered from that
She was there when the critics didn't get it,
and half the musicians didn't get it.
She got it. And I think that that was very important to her and I
think that was very, very important to him, too.
He loved her for that.
Monk and Nica became a regular feature on the scene.
We used to hang out a lot,
and Monk and Nica would come to my house, and we'd go out,
driving round, and after hours.
And then they'd come by my house at all times - in the daytime.
He was the high priest, and she was the Baroness!
It was kind of a thing, you know?
-No, not quite.
You can get somebody who can decipher that for you, you know?
Tell you what it means.
And what were the dynamics of Monk's marriage to Nellie?
Thelonious was a family man, he loved Nellie.
I do remember one day with him when we were sitting in a tea room,
we stopped on the way from London to Bristol to get
a cup of tea and a sandwich, and the sun was coming in the window
and it picked up Nellie's face and
Thelonious turns and looks at her and says, "You look like an angel."
One of the most beautiful things I ever saw in my life,
the way he said that.
Cos Nellie was not a beautiful woman, I mean, she was a beautiful
person and that beauty came through in her character,
but she did everything for Thelonious.
Whatever had to be done,
she put up with every single thing, and he appreciated that.
And did Monk and Nica have an affair?
There's no evidence at all that they were lovers.
I never saw any touchy-feely stuff, nothing like that, I swear to God.
I don't know, and I don't care.
Musicians would say, "Man, you sleeping with her?"
And he would get so indignant and say,
"Man, what's wrong with you?
"I would never, never do that to my best friend.
"Don't you even know what friendship means?"
Nellie needed Nica to help deal with Thelonious' mental instability.
He was bipolar, basically, and his condition was episodic,
so there were times that Nellie just could not
take the weight of caring for him.
-Did Thelonious take drugs?
What kind of drugs did he take?
Thelonious would take from marijuana, which is not even
considered a drug, it was simply like a chewing gum,
to heroin, I'd have to say that...
..whether snorted or injected.
I think he didn't do much injecting, I think he did mostly snorting.
Not that much, my guess is not that much, but enough.
He would look at things,
he would often look up into the sky and mumble things,
and that sounds like schizophrenic behaviour to me.
A rush of noise coming in, it would seem to me.
Manic depression, I don't think there was manic depression, but
sometimes mental illness, I think, is a cocktail of these things.
But when you see him getting up, doing a little dance...
What's wrong with dancing?
Is it crazy to dance?
People dance every day
all over the world, there's nothing crazy about dancing, is there?
No, absolutely not.
He would stay up, he wouldn't go to bed,
he'd stay up three or four days in a row.
And he'd be spinning around,
different things like that.
So people would stay out of his way, cos Monk was a large person.
And I remember the baroness said something to me, she says,
"He will never hurt you."
And when she told me that...
..I never worried.
Because a lot of musicians, they would disappear.
I began to see similarities rather than differences
between Nica and Monk's stories.
Nica's sister, Liberty, had schizophrenia and needed
constant care and supervision throughout her whole life.
Of course, both Monk and Nica's fathers suffered from mental problems.
My father certainly had serious depressions
when he was young.
And he had...
when he had encephalitis with his Spanish flu,
he also, on top of it, had a serious depression.
Well, he might have done.
Anyone with that illness could get a depression.
When my father killed himself,
my mother decided that she'd never tell us that he'd committed suicide,
and that he'd just died of a heart attack.
And she said to me, the words she said to me, "This has been coming
"on for a long time, as you know how ill he's been."
And I accepted that because, my God,
he had been ill, and I could quite well believe that. I was 15.
My mother managed, with the influence the family had,
to suppress the fact that he'd committed suicide in the newspapers.
It never appeared.
Did you ever talk about it after it happened?
As a family?
And does this early heartbreak partly explain Nica's incredible
love for an ailing Monk and her compassion for the other musicians?
I would be hanging with Nica, and we would get in the car.
She'd say, come on, let's go in the car. We have to go somewhere.
And I can't tell you how many... mercy missions just short of
ambulatory in their nature, to save musicians' lives.
In every way you can imagine.
Whether we were going to a pawnshop to retrieve a guy's instrument,
or going to buy groceries because
so and so didn't have food, or going to a rental office to pay
somebody's rent because they were about to be thrown on the street,
or going to the hospital to visit
somebody because they didn't have anybody else to visit them,
or going to help somebody get some food because their girlfriend just had a baby...
I mean, the list goes on and on and on.
It's so many different kinds of things.
Every aspect of human existence that I saw musicians deal with,
I saw them lean on Nica and I saw Nica respond.
NICA: "I never sought it out - the role of freedom fighter, but once I got here,
"I did see that an awful lot of help was needed.
"And, well, I couldn't just stand by and watch."
She was a fighter. Tough, tough lady.
And, like I said, I think she found a cause.
She was a woman who was ahead of her time.
What's interesting about her is...
..that she took a stand when it wasn't popular to do so.
And that's what I meant about taking risks.
Actually, she stands as a role-model,
one of the early feminists.
To not only assert her right to be herself,
but to see herself as a person who fomented social change,
and that social change was possible from her class.
NICA: "When I first met Monk,
"he'd lost his cabaret card and couldn't work in New York clubs.
"The police took it away after some bogus drugs bust in 1951.
"I put a beautiful piano in my suite
"and he'd be up there all day long, playing the piano.
"And then at night, we'd go out around the clubs.
"And then all the musicians would come back with us
"and we'd have these...
"these fantastic jam sessions, until eight or nine the next morning.
"There'd be Sonny Rollins,
"Bud Powell, Blakey - all the cats were there."
Society people would slum and go down here.
Swing bands or jazz bands or what have you, but it wasn't as...
With her, it was...
She just embraced the whole culture of jazz
and bop musicians, and the whole kind of rebelliousness of it.
People of wealth and of a certain class,
that lived on Fifth Avenue, like the Baroness did, just didn't
socialise with jazz musicians.
The majority of the opinions of jazz musicians
is that they were drunks or drug addicts or sex maniacs.
They were considered people with bad reputations,
because, remember, jazz had just come out of the house of ill repute.
But the attitude that Nica found most despicable
in her adopted country was racial prejudice.
I remember in Texas once, in 1951, finishing the job
about twelve-thirty, one, and we had to drive until
almost 6 o'clock in the morning to find a place to eat. To try to eat.
We'd even send the driver in, because we went by one place,
it was dawn by then, and we were driving through the town
to check out a restaurant, and on top of the church,
the top, the steeple of the biggest church in town had a rope around it
and an effigy of a black dummy, hanging off of the church steeple.
And we just said, "Keep going."
Oh, that was...every day was like that.
It's hard to believe that these memories belong to Quincy Jones,
the influential composer, musician, Oscar-winner and activist.
His wall of fame reminded me of Waddesdon and Tring,
and Nica's childhood homes.
And so I asked both Quincy and my great-aunt Miriam, Nica's sister,
to examine the seeds of prejudice.
The office boy has got to kick the cat downstairs.
Everybody's got to have something below them
That they can either bully or torment or kick downstairs
like the office boy.
It's just part of the human race and
it's just unlucky if you happen to be Jewish, because you're one of the
easiest things to kick downstairs, but next day it'll be the negroes,
and the next day it'll be something else. They always need
something on which to vent their...
anger, really, at what life is like.
It was part of a disease.
A psychological disease.
Make yourself feel like a giant by making other people midgets, you know?
It's a cheap shot, you know?
It was like, when she came over, they'd shout at her in her car.
You know, "nigger lover", and all that, so she went to quite a bit.
And we could appreciate what she was going over...going through.
And in our own way, we would have fought to the death
when we were with her, you know?
If we were there and someone insulted her or something,
they had to deal with all of us.
But the main problem for Nica was not just that her friends were black.
Many were also drug addicts.
Heroin was part of their lifestyle, and the most famous junkie of all
was Monk's co-founder of bebop, Charlie "Bird" Parker.
And Charlie Parker was so excessive,
because there were not many people you could find either in
or out of the jazz world who would drink a half a gallon of wine
and drop a handful of Benzedrine.
You know, and shoot up dope the way he shot it up.
So Charlie Parker was extreme.
He courted death.
Most people do not understand, you know?
Charlie Parker was not a nice person.
He did a lot of bad things to a lot of people.
Part of it was the drugs.
Part of it was his personality.
Charlie Parker was one of the reasons that we got
involved with the type of drug use that we were into.
Him being our idol and his social impact on everybody.
You know, we were like Charlie Parker's children, in a way.
You know, all the young saxophone boys.
NICA: "For all the adulation heaped upon him by fans and musicians,
"Bird was lonely.
"I saw him standing in front of Birdland in the pouring rain
"and I was horrified. I asked him, "Why?"
"And he said he had no place to go.
"And when this happened, he'd ride the subways all night.
"He'd ride a train to the end of the line and when he was ordered out,
"he would go to another train ride back."
Parker was supposed to go to Boston for an engagement.
He stopped up there.
He started vomiting blood,
she called the doctor, they said, "You're too sick to travel."
And he spent a couple of days there and,
according to Nica's recollections, she and her daughter,
who I guess was very young at the time, were just giving him
endless amounts of water to drink and could not slake his thirst.
He was sweating, he was sick, he had all sorts of complications.
He was 34 years old but of course he looked a lot older.
He gained a lot of weight. She says that...
the doctor was up there twice
and then, on Sunday night, they were watching the Dorsey Brothers
television show and during the juggling act,
he started laughing and then choking, and then died.
NICA: "Oh, yes. That story became juicy grist for the pulp mills.
"One screamed, "The Bird And The Baroness' Boudoir."
"Another newspaper said, "Bop King Dies In Heiress' Flat,"
"or, "Death Of Bop King Parker."
"One particular paper said, "Blinded and bedazzled by
"this luscious, slinky, black-haired, jet-eyed Circe of high society,
"the yardbird was a fallen sparrow."
"I mean, how absolutely ridiculous!"
The most famous columnist in New York at the time
was Walter Winchell.
Walter Winchell actually pursued her.
He persecuted her in his column, as a dealer of drugs...
Oh, he made her out to be this horror.
He targeted her, and Walter Winchell was like...
I don't know if you know anything about Walter Winchell?
-Oh, you don't know anything about Walter Winchell?
Oh, you should find out. He was a guy literally made or broke people.
'I did find out, and ploughed through yards of innuendo,
'speculation, rumours about Nica's love affairs
'and her supposed habits.
'But I've always believed that the best way to establish the truth
'is to ask those who were there, the first-hand witnesses.'
Did Nica take drugs?
I don't think I've ever seen Nica...smoke a joint, as they say.
I've never seen that, so I can't tell you.
And she never looked to me like someone that was high.
She would drink a little bit but she...she once told me that she was really...
She had been, I think, almost a certified alcoholic, I think,
but she said Thelonious cured her.
Then she'd get up at...six in the evening,
and the first thing I'm told that she did
sometimes was to take a pistol
around and practice... pistol-shooting on the light bulbs
in the hotel bedrooms.
And this of course went down badly with the hotel management.
And it was my father, from time to time,
who had to go over there to dissuade with her, to allow her to go on staying there.
What do you think Nica's family in England's reaction was to
her lifestyle in New York, and her friends?
They didn't talk very much about Nica, so I imagine
that they disapproved, and found it very strange.
I think they were probably very surprised and slightly shocked.
Nica's behaviour was too much for her husband.
The Baron sued for divorce and received custody of the younger children.
Though her eldest daughter, Janka, was allowed to remain with her mother in New York.
NICA: "I was living in the Stanhope, but after Bird died, they threw me out.
"Then I went to the Bolivar, and that's when I got my Steinway.
"Well, Thelonious and I got it together.
"That's where he wrote Brilliant Corners, Bolivar Blues, and Pannonica."
These shelves, unfortunately, tend to break the spines of the records,
so you can't easily read them.
These are all Monk records I'm going through, every single one.
And that's the one with Pannonica on it, is it?
This is really one of the great dedication pieces.
This is a very major composition,
specifically created to celebrate the individual,
as opposed to, "Hey, we just did a blues ad-libbed in the studio.
"Let's name it for our friend."
It's really one of the great, great jazz dedication pieces.
As substantial as anything.
NICA: "It was my brother Victor who decided I needed a house,
"and he found me this one, that had belonged to Josef von Sternberg, Dietrich's director.
"Thelonious used to call it The Cathouse.
"I was used to being surrounded by animals."
She'd know the name of each cat.
I remember one of her favourites was Cootie, that she named after Cootie Williams.
So she had all of these cats named after different musicians.
The term "cats" in jazz comes from the cathouses of New Orleans,
where the musicians played in the early days.
That's where they found employment.
So I think that's how they started calling each other cats.
The only place they couldn't go, and she told me this,
was the Bentley.
It had a fence build around it, in the garage, so they couldn't get into the Bentley.
What do you think Monk made of all the cats?
He hated cats. He hated the cats. He said so.
He just loved her, and liked hanging around her,
but he wasn't into the cats at all.
After six years of being a shadowy figure, unable to play in public,
shuttling between his apartment and Nica's hotel room,
Monk finally got his cabaret card back,
and it was Nica who helped him secure a long-standing gig,
at the Five Spot, a residency that was to go down in jazz history.
In fact, when I did start to play with Monk at the Five Spot,
Monk had her to call me up.
She was the one that made the deal.
It was great to play at the Five Spot
with Monk. We were there sometimes 18 weeks at a time.
I remember her coming in with Monk.
She was always with an entourage, a few people.
Come in with her fur coat on and smiling as usual, you know? I'll
never forget that smile of hers.
She had taken Thelonious to the Five Spot so many times
that she could time the lights perfectly, you know?
So he'd jump in the car and he was living at West 63rd Street,
and she'd have to get downtown to the village,
and she'd just get down there without having to stop.
Just figured it all out.
On October 15th, 1958, Nica drove Monk and Charlie Rouse
to a concert in Wilmington, Delaware.
A white woman driving two black men was enough to alert the cops.
It's all here in the cutting.
They never got there.
NICA: "Baroness Sentenced.
"Wilmington, Delaware, April 21st, 1958.
"Baroness Kathleen Rothschild de Koenigswarter
"was sentenced to three years in prison today
"for having ten dollars' worth of marijuana in her car when
"she was arrested with Thelonious Monk, negro pianist, and another musician."
The night before, he was going through one of his mental episodes.
And that, of course, made me nervous, but he had a job...
We weren't in a position just to cancel a job.
And then what happened was, he started acting strange.
So he goes in this hotel, asks for a drink of water.
Looks very menacing, as far as the hotel staff are concerned.
The manager of the hotel called the Highway Patrol,
and he went back into the car.
They basically started beating Thelonious.
And the Baroness jumps out.
She's trying to defend him, saying, "Protect his hands.
"Don't beat his hands," cos his hands are on the steering wheel,
and they're beating them.
They open up the trunk of the car and saw marijuana, a little can.
It now became a narcotics arrest.
And she took the rap, you know? She took the rap for him.
Why do you think she took the rap?
-Why did she do it?
I think she did it because
she felt that she would be able to deal with the legal problems
much better than he.
He was black, she was not.
She was a woman.
White woman or not, Nica's sentence was three years,
followed by immediate deportation.
She refused to say who the dope actually belonged to.
She went to prison and Monk still lost his card.
I tried to find out what happened next but the trail went cold.
No one could tell me any details.
I hit a dead end.
And then one of those lucky breaks.
At Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the few centres of jazz
studies, I was looking at Mary Lou Williams' archive.
The great pianist was Nica's closest friend and pen-pal
and there were lots of Nica's things.
There were paintings, fabulous paintings.
It's absolutely amazing, isn't it?
And there were letters that quashed my fears that Nica had abandoned her children.
She hadn't at all.
There were references to their visits
and to Christmases and to holidays.
Bianca and her son Stephen even lived at the Cathouse.
And all her children hung out with her and the musicians.
And then I found it, a letter.
Nica had apparently been let out of prison subject to appeal.
And this letter was written by Nica the night before
her case went to the High Court - possibly her last night of freedom,
the last time she'd see Monk.
NICA: "Today is the day upon which my entire future may well depend.
"At this very moment, it may well be being decided.
"Release, miraculous escape,
"the chance to start afresh with a clean slate.
"Or the onset of inevitable catastrophe,
"the beginning of the end.
"I don't mention it to Thelonious or Nellie or anyone else.
"And now I sit outside St Martins
"and I wonder which of them has any idea of what I'm going through today.
"And as for Thelonious, well,
"his protection is at the root of the whole business
"and I've never discussed it with him.
"And I don't think he's really aware of that.
"He and Nellie have enough problems as it is.
"I've been sitting here for almost two hours and it's very cold.
"So now I'm going in to light a candle to St Martin."
Nica's prayers were answered and she got off on a technicality.
NICA: "Everybody, well, I mean the family, finally got the message after I'd
"been in and out of prison and all that.
"They all got to realise what was going on,
"that Thelonious was something rather important in my life.
"And of course they're all suddenly dying to meet him.
"My sister Miriam came up to New York.
"That's another story."
It took another 18 months for Monk to get his cabaret card back.
He hit the road and the recording studios with a vengeance
and was finally recognised as the genius that Nica had spotted 11 years earlier.
Hello again. The star guest of our Jazz
625 show tonight has been referred to as the high priest of bebop, as
a jazz maverick, as the mysterious Monk and, more recently,
in a London paper, as the piano Picasso.
Whatever that means.
What he is, in fact, is one of those rare beings, a true jazz
original, a vastly respected musician and composer, whose
influence on jazz in the last 25 years has been incalculable,
but who has remained all the time a striking individualist.
The name is Thelonious Monk.
He's suddenly a star. All the critics who hated him, love him.
But this is jazz, which means that you can be loved,
you can get gigs all the time, but you still won't make any money.
I mean, this is a man who signed with Columbia records,
which is a big record label, and by the time he left the label,
he owed them over 100,000.
Despite selling many, many records.
It was an unfortunate life.
Thelonious Monk was listed in the phone book. "Monk, Thelonious."
Now, someone on his level today would be unlisted.
Because they were poor, they wanted the phone to ring, they wanted jobs.
In 1968, Columbia records cancelled Monk's recording contract.
Without this money, it was extremely hard to keep a band together.
Nica's own finances were increasingly precarious.
The cat food and veterinarian bills alone were astronomical.
Monk had to go out on the road to earn money, even though he
was suffering from frequent nervous breakdowns and even hospitalisation.
One particular incident happened in San Francisco,
when Monk was admitted to the mental ward
by the trumpeter Eddie Henderson,
who was at that time a newly- qualified psychiatric doctor.
Nellie brought him in late at night and I was awake and I came
downstairs to be the doctor, to do the intake interview.
I said, "That's Monk!" to myself.
Nobody else really knew who he was.
Nica said over her dead body
would Monk receive shock treatment.
That was something she was very adamant. But she wasn't out there,
she didn't go to the West Coast.
So, electric shock therapy, most people have a grand seizure, Monk just gritted his teeth.
They put electrodes to his head and, in effect, turn on electricity.
And somehow, it more or less does something to the brain cells.
And it works. They're not depressed any more.
However, they're not really the same anymore.
At the end, they gave Mr Monk a diagnosis -
schizophrenia, unclassified type.
According to Paul Jeffreys - one of Monk's sidemen - Nellie had hoped to
spend time on the West Coast and to
find Monk a permanent engagement in either San Francisco or Los Angeles.
To save money, Nellie had sub-let the family apartment
but Monk's breakdown meant they had to come back to New York.
When Monk came back to New York, he had no apartment and no furniture.
He had nowhere to stay.
So Nica got him an apartment.
So what had happened to his apartment and his furniture?
Nobody ever knew.
Cos Monk used to ask me, "Where's my furniture?"
I remember he even went so far as that Charlie Rouse lived in
the same apartment building that Monk used to live in.
And he went by Charlie Rouse's house.
Charlie wasn't in, Charlie's old lady was there.
And Monk walked through the whole apartment looking for his furniture.
JAZZ PIANO MUSIC
He's also suffering from prostate problems,
so physically it's difficult for him to sit for long periods of time
and increasingly he began to cut down the number of gigs.
He lost a lot of his sidemen because they needed steady work
and so he couldn't provide that for them.
In '72, that's when he had a really bad episode, and that's
when Nellie and Nica decided that it would be better for him
to move in to the Baroness's house.
Monk spent the last 10 years of his life in the Cathouse, and his final
public engagements were at Carnegie Hall and at Bradley's in 1976.
People would ask him, "How come you stopped playing?"
He says, "Well, I'm just tired. I just got tired of playing."
NICA: "Monk only stopped playing
"when it became a physical impossibility for him to go on.
"Otherwise, nothing on earth could have stopped him playing.
"You know, he had a biochemical imbalance
"and he was desperately ill during those last years.
"He wanted to get well more than anything in the world.
"And he co-operated with his doctors 100%.
"And they tried everything under the sun,
"but nothing seemed to help.
"I only regret one thing in my life,
"and that's not being able to save Thelonious."
People would go up there like a pilgrimage every day.
And he'd be in the bed.
He'd have half the world stretched out in the bed with him.
Books, magazines, records, all kinds of stuff.
It was always very strange. And I'd say, "What's happening, Monk?"
He'd say "Everything, all the time.
"Every...what, googolplex of a second," he'd say.
I'd say, "Oh, really?"
'I like to think of Nica at this time in her house across the water
'living with Monk and an assortment of children, grandchildren and cats.
'Still entertaining other musicians and still, as her interviews and her
'letters show, fully committed to helping Thelonious.'
NICA: "I haven't been away anywhere for 12 years,
"but then I had to go to England.
"I'm not a crier, I never cried.
"I can count the times on one hand when I've cried.
"I didn't cry when Thelonious died and I haven't cried since.
"But on the day that I left here, I started to cry.
"And when I went to say goodbye to Thelonious, he was really upset.
"I couldn't stop, you know? I just couldn't stop.
"And I cried the whole way to England, too.
"And I remember Thelonious saying there before I left,
"It's all right, I will be here when you come back.
"I'm not going anywhere. I will be here."
"But I just couldn't stop.
"And that was in 1982 and, of course, he died in 1982.
"And it was almost like I knew he was going to,
"and, like I had to say my farewell to him then."
What would have happened to Monk if she wasn't there?
-'I would like to play a little tune
'I just composed named after this beautiful lady here.'
Your aunt fell in love with my dad.
I have no doubt about that.
I love Nica so I'll do anything for Nica.
She has that cigarette holder
and that long hair and that smile and that whole thing.
I can just see her now.
She was cool and she was hip.
Those were the key words back then, cool to be hip and hip to be cool.
And your aunt was a pretty damn flamboyant woman.
She was our pride and she was our light.
The last time I saw great-aunt Nica was in the club downtown.
She sat, of course, at her usual table nearest the stage
and her fur coat was slung over the back of a chair.
She never did succeed in making me a jazz expert and nor did her example
tempt me to seek a life elsewhere.
Perhaps I lack courage.
Perhaps I just never heard the right record at the right time.
'But what Nica and her friends have shown me is that
'those of us lucky enough to enjoy
'freedom and opportunity should make the most of every minute.'
And if she were with me now, I think I know what Nica would do.
First, she'd pour us both a shot of whisky from her teapot
and then she'd raise her finger to her mouth and she'd whisper,
"Shh, just listen to the music, Hannah.
NICA: "I would like my ashes to be scattered on the Hudson River
"in the evening, round midnight.
"Yes, I said "round midnight." I think you all know why."
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Documentary, made by her great niece, about the British Jewish baroness who fell in love with the jazz genius Thelonious Monk.
Pannonica Rothschild was born with everything, got married and had five children, but one track by a man she had never met inspired her to leave and start a new life in America.
Helen Mirren is the voice of 'Nica', while Sonny Rollins, TS Monk Jr, the Duchess of Devonshire, Quincy Jones, Lord Rothschild, Roy Haynes, Chico Hamilton and others appear as themselves.