The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter–French Resistance pilot, Rothschild, patron and muse to Thelonious Monk and other jazz greats–has been in the news a fair amount in the past 4-5 years. Now her great-grandniece has published a biography of the enigmatic great-aunt who was virtually disowned by her family after she moved to New York to better provide emotional and financial sustenance to Monk, Charlie Parker, and a great many musicians of the Bebop Generation. It is important to remember that jazz in postwar America had not yet reached the institutionalized stage it has today. There was no Jazz in July, let alone at Lincoln Center, in 1950s and early 1960s America. A jazz artist then was more likely to be an alcoholic or heroin addict than the college-educated vegetarian many are today. Many aspects of the life were indeed squalid and unseemly–Charlie Parker died on her living room sofa at the age of thirty-four. The only thing worse than what Parker and his acolytes did to themselves is the the realization that it was all self-inflicted, an incredible waste and squandering of human talent. Yet, at their best, the jazz musicians of the time had a wit and worldliness the the Beatniks who clung to them could never in their wildest dreams have penetrated. Many of the Beats mistakenly believed that improvisational jazz meant that the musicians simply stepped on stage, began jamming, and produced what they did. There was an ugly whiff of the myth of the Noble Savage in the whole thing. In reality, these men–and they were mostly men–worked hard on their art, meeting regularly in small, basement apartments across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens and often playing for each other after hours to hone their skills. I intend to read Hannah Rothschild’s book this summer.
The day before Thanksgiving in 2008 I had a dentist appointment in the city and swung by the Hermes store on the Upper East Side afterward to catch Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats at the boutique’s upstairs gallery. The wealthy baroness used Hermes leather notebooks to mount photographs she had taken of Monk and others. We’re not talking Francis Wolff here. These are not professional photographs but images captured in relaxed and informal moments by a person taking pictures of her friends. The video below that I found is wonderful but does not quite capture the immediacy of seeing the actual, original, photos, which look no different from photos you or I might have taken except for the fact that they depict Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others. The exhibit was called Three Wishes because the baroness liked to ask people what they would ask for if they could have any three desires fulfilled. Of course I shamelessly ordered the companion volume for the library where I work.
We are looking forward to going to the Jazzmobile at Grant’s Tomb come July and August.