Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Jazz Baroness

Showing on HBO2 tonight: The Jazz Baroness, directed by Hannah Rothschild

Synopsis from HBO's website:

The Jazz Baroness tells the moving love story of Pannonica Rothschild ("Nica" for short) and pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. Directed by Nica's great-niece Hannah Rothschild, the documentary features the voice of Oscar® winner Helen Mirren, who reads Nica's words.

From wildly different beginnings - his on a humble farm in the American deep south, hers in luxurious European mansions frequented by kings, queens and heads of state - the film traces their lives up to the point of meeting, then follows their time together in a post-World War II New York City buzzing with pre-civil rights tension and the frenetic syncopation of bebop.

The film weaves together archival footage and interviews with family members, friends, jazz historians and luminaries, among them Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Jr., Roy Haynes, Curtis Fuller, The Duchess of Devonshire and Clint Eastwood. The Jazz Baroness also features footage of the groundbreaking Thelonious Monk Quartet playing such classics as "Straight, No Chaser," "The Bolivar Blues" and "Nutty," including a 1965 BBC appearance, when Monk finally began to get the recognition, if not the financial rewards, he had worked for.

Hannah Rothschild spent years uncovering the story of her great aunt, a woman who as a child learned magic tricks from Einstein, and in later life lived with more than 300 cats and served Scotch from a teapot. This search for information often met a wall of secrecy from family members reluctant to divulge details about a woman who had so radically, some say eccentrically, reinvented herself.

Rothschild's film profiles an extraordinary woman who devoted herself to the cause of New York's jazz elite, who were not only struggling artistically, but battling a racist culture. Nica sheltered them when they were broke, bailed them out of jail and helped them cope with their drug habits. (She even took the fall when police found marijuana in the car she and Monk were traveling in, earning a three-year jail sentence, though the conviction was later reversed.) In appreciation, Monk and others wrote dozens of songs for and about her.

Among the most compelling segments is the story of how Nica and Monk met. Then married, Nica was introduced by a friend to Monk's "'Round Midnight," which would become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time. "I couldn't believe my ears," she recalled. "I'd never heard anything remotely like it." Nica set out to find Monk, finally meeting him two years later. Interestingly, for all the mutual love and devotion that developed between them, it seemed that their relationship was essentially platonic. Monk remained married to his wife, Nellie, who seemed to embrace the unusual situation.

Ultimately, it was all about the music for Nica. She left her husband, she said, because he liked military drum music and hated jazz. Nica recognized Monk's musical genius years before the critics and even many musicians. In the words of saxophonist Archie Shepp, "She was a woman who was ahead of her time. She took a stand when it wasn't popular to do so."

Before she died during routine heart surgery in 1988, six years after Monk's death from a stroke, Nica made a special request. "I would like my ashes to be scattered on the Hudson River in the evening, around midnight," she said. "Yes, that's right, I said ' 'round midnight.' I think you all know why."

Interview with Hannah Rothschild at Women & Hollywood.

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