She was often called "Nica," although there were heavier names she carried, too. The Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter (born Rothschild) was a member of one of the most notable banking families in Britain, and was married for a time to French ambassador Lieutenant-Colonel Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, with whom she had five children.
The baroness’s cocooned existence (as a daughter of privilege and a diplomat's wife) was a dull-coloured skin that never quite fit her properly. So in the early 1950s, Pannonica de Koenigswarter sloughed off the life she'd been born into and moved to New York City, where she emerged as an important jazz patron and friend to many bebop musicians — most notoriously the saxophonist Charlie Parker, who died in her apartment in 1955, and the pianist Thelonious Monk, with whom she had a very close relationship for almost 30 years until his death in 1982.
Pannonica de Koenigswarter's unlikely story is the subject of a new book, The Baroness: The Search for Nica the Rebellious Rothschild, by her great-niece Hannah Rothschild, whose 2009 documentary The Jazz Baroness on the same subject has also just been commercially released.
In the opening minutes of Rothschild's documentary, she includes an excerpt from what I believe to be the 1956 homemade reel-to-reel recording mentioned in Robin D. G. Kelley’s Sessionography. Monk introduces “a little tune [he had] just composed not so long ago, entitled 'Pannonica,'” a musical tribute to de Koenigswarter that he performs on the piano in her apartment at the Bolivar Hotel in New York City. (That hotel, incidentally, was the subject of another famous Monk tune: "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are.")
Monk was certainly not the only composer to honour the bebop baroness in this way. However, along with Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” it’s one of the few examples that has become a popular standard. There are recordings of "Panonica" by Chick Corea, Joe Lovano, Peter Bernstein, Steve Lacy, Fred Hersch, McCoy Tyner, Tito Puente and Johnny Griffin with Horace Parlan – as well as Canadian artists Jane Bunette and John Stetch – among many others. There is even a vocal version made famous by Carmen McRae, with lepidopteran lyrics by Jon Hendricks: “Little Butterfly.”
"Delicate things such as butterfly wings
Poets can't describe though they try;
Love played a tune when she stepped from her cocoon:
Pannonica my butterfly."
Monk says in his spoken introduction to "Pannonica" that he thinks “her father gave her that name, after a butterfly that he tried to catch.” Charles Rothschild was a banker by birth, but also an “obsessive entomologist” who in his spare time amassed an impossibly vast collection of butterflies and other insects, some of which are housed at the Natural History Museum in London. That’s where Hannah Rothschild went searching to see if she could find the actual specimen after which Pannonica was named, and she was a bit surprised by what she discovered.
“I’d been expecting something more dazzling,” she says in her film. “Not this delicate little creature, whose pale yellow wings looked like they’d been dipped in Château Lafite. And what I certainly wasn’t expecting was to find out that it wasn’t a butterfly at all. It was a moth.”
Moths are, of course, closely related to butterflies. But they are far more likely to be creatures of the night. Fitting then that the candle flame which initially drew Pannonica de Koenigswarter to her chiefly nocturnal life (of bebop musicians and New York jazz clubs) was Monk’s aptly titled “'Round Midnight.”
Fitting too that her final wish was to have her ashes scattered on the Hudson River, around midnight. "Yes, I said 'round midnight,” she confirmed before she died in 1988, “I think you all know why."
Select Pannonica playlist
• “Blues for Nica” by Kenny Drew
• “Inca” by Barry Harris
• “Little Butterfly” by Thelonious Monk/Jon Hendricks
• "Nica” by Sonny Clark
• “Nica Steps Out” by Freddie Redd
• “Nica's Day” by Wayne Horvitz
• “Nica's Dream” by Horace Silver
• “Nica's Tempo” by Gigi Gryce
• “Pannonica” by Thelonious Monk
• “Thelonica” by Tommy Flannigan
• “Theme for Nica” by Eddie Thomposn
• “Tonica” by Kenny Dorham
Thelonious Monk: ‘Stop playing all those weird notes, play the melody!’
J is for jazz: B is for bebop
Phil Minton and the Feral Choir in Ottawa and Victoriaville
on May 14, 2012