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The Baroness of Be-Bop

November 25, 2009 By:
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Juicy and jammed with side men and side dishes, "The Jazz Baroness" has all the meat and the trimmings that make it a thanks-worthy special this holiday season on Nov. 25 on HBO2.

And what better to sip at this service than vintage Rothschild.

That's what viewers get in this un-be-bop--believable docu which details the Jew and the Monk: the backbeat of Baroness Pannonica ("Nica") Rothschild, whose fiscal and aesthetic support of the ascetically surnamed music master Thelonius Monk provided jazz with one of those legends that scats a scale all its own.

Round midnight, long after the 90-minute film has faded from the screen at 9:30 p.m., finger-snappin' questions demand a second look -- HBO2 is rebroadcasting the docu Nov. 29 and 30 -- at how this improv relationship was imperiled by the prejudices of the time but managed to persist.

Filmmaker Hannah Rothschild is on familiar -- and family -- turf with this brilliant biopic which accords the two subjects the tea and symphony their story so much demands.

The baroness's great-niece has made a great piece here, in concert with her other accomplishments as writer/journalist/director. Her own bio includes the biography she is also writing about the topics at hand -- and at ear -- in the HBO2 offering.

But such fertile ground this "Jazz Baroness," whose quirky kicks -- serving Scotch from a teapot; practicing magic tricks learned from scientific prestidigitator Albert Einstein -- seem quid-pro-quo for the relationship she formed with the pro jazz world.

If nothing else, the "Jazz Baroness" played life like a jam session. "That is exactly what it was like," muses Hannah about the royal muse and her musician.

She was indeed a Rothschild -- taking a number in the long line of accomplished members of the legendary European banking dynasty whose cachet has been cash-and-carry for a number of films, dramas and even a musical -- but one who banked on her own intuition.

"She dared to be different," concedes Hannah.

Surrounded in her living quarters by 300 cats, it was 301 who was the coolest cat of all -- Monk, who, in his later leaner years, shared the baroness's New York living space.

It was room in keeping with what she had done before, providing space and inspiration for late legend Charlie Parker.

"She has always been an inspiration," notes Hannah of her great-aunt who became fixated on Monk and his music long before she became a fixture of the '50s jazz scene in New York.

The Brit-born baroness had long marched to her own drummer -- and drummed out her husband from a role in her life because of his preference for "military drum music " and distate for jazz. She married the music scene instead, rounded up the first time she heard Monk's "Round Midnight" and setting on a three-year search to meet him.

"She crammed everything into every moment,," says her great-niece of the grandiloquent baroness. "She wanted to be part of it all."

The baroness was part and parcel of a prestigious posh heritage pursued by the Rothschilds -- arts patron. Indeed, "one of my ancestors was a patron of Chopin," says Hannah.

The modern-day jazz etudes had their own attitude and the baroness enjoyed them. Ironic that such a genteel, genial woman could scale the life of jazz, a genre whose reputation was of a drug-infested demimonde.

"Jazz came out of an era of whorehouses, a dissolute lifestyle, and my aunt grew up listening to jazz at her debutant classes."

Her debut as Monk muse sat well with the legion of jazz legends who moved in his syncopated subset. But it wasn't the first time music moved the baroness. "She had once fallen in love with a fiddle player. In a way, music was a Pied Piper to her."

But it was no game of follow the leader; the baroness was no royal groupie losing her grip. Her legendary liaison with Monk was playful but platonic; he was and remained married to his accommodating wife, Nellie, during his friendship with Nica.

Menage a music? There was "absolutely no evidence of any kind that the two had a sexual relationship," said Hannah.

"But there is no doubt she loved him."

Others hated what they stood for. A white Jewish woman cavorting so cavalierly with a black jazz musician was viewed by some as an uncivil rite in the '50s. "Walter Winchell," says Hannah of the notorious New York gossip columnist/broadcaster who had many a power-broker's ear, "persecuted her; a lot of people disapproved of her lifestyle choice."

The baroness burned bridges but enjoyed the torch songs that ensued. "She would not have cared about what society said; she couldn't give it a tossel," says her Brit-born great-niece.

"She was colorblind. What she cared about was what the musicians thought."

And they trumpeted her as one of their own: "She was a woman ahead of her time. She took a stand when it wasn't popular to do so," says standout saxophonist Archie Shepp in the film.

Oxford University history scholar Hannah has a history with the topic on screen; she had also made a radio documentary aired about her great-aunt.

She fervently believes in what the "baroness of be-bop" became: a living link to meaning in a chaotic unscripted world of sharp rebukes. "She taught me to celebrate the similarities between people."

If the story is of a beat and beaten down-generation -- an ailing Monk died in 1982, not having touched the piano for the final six years of his life -- it is also a love story that tickles the ivories with a wonderful feather-soothing feel and finesse.

All that jazz has its built-in irony as well. Almost as a last will and testament to the pianist she heard round midnight and rounded up all her energies, day and night, to support, Nica succumbed ultimately to the power of the 88 keys Monk had mastered.

The Jazz Baroness' final loving salute was in keeping the beat: She died in ... '88.

 

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