I first came across the photographs of Pannonica de Koenigswarter at the 2007 Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival in Arles, France. The exhibition, which was in a small darkened upstairs room at the Espace Van Gogh, presented the entire 300 original Polaroid’s Pannonica had made of jazz musicians in New York in the 1960’s and 70’s.
There was something very apt about Polaroid being the chosen photographic medium as, like the spontaneous improvisations of a jazz solo, each photograph was a one of original. Each one of these pictures, suspended in its museum display case, was, for me, like a precious archeological artifact. One knew with certainty, because of the Polaroid process, that the author and the subject of each picture had held the very print you were looking at, this fact often betrayed by fingerprints and scratches. In addition to the 300 pictures the exhibition also presented Pannonica’s original notebooks for the project, “Three Wishes”. These were a series of lavishly leather bound books that gave a tantalizing insight into how she had originally conceived the unpublished book.
Pannonica de Koenigswarter (Nica) was sometimes known as the ‘The Jazz Baroness’. She was British, born in December 1913. As the daughter of Charles Rothschild she was a member of the wealthy Rothschild dynasty, one of the wealthiest families in the world at that time.
In 1951, having separated from her husband, she moved to New York where she permanently renting a suite at the Stanhope Hotel on 5th Avenue. She was an avid jazz fan and quickly became friend and patron to many of the leading jazz musicians of the time. She would frequently host jam sessions in her hotel suite and was often seen driving musicians to gigs at clubs like the Five Spot, Minton’s Playhouse, The Village Vanguard and Birdland in her chauffeured Bentley. When the hotel management at the Stanhope became exasperated by the noisy jam sessions they tried to evict her by doubling, then tripling, her rent but she just paid and stayed.
She was sometimes referred to as the ‘Bebop Baroness’ because of her patronage of musicians like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. It was in de Koenigswarter’s suite, at the Stanhope Hotel, 1n 1955 where Charlie Parker would die, after a lifetime of drug, food and alcohol abuse.
She was particularly close to Monk, and in 1957 she helped him win back his cabaret card, the loss of which, for an early drug offence, was keeping him from publicly performing during one of the most productive decades of his life. Eventually, tired of all the disapproval from hotel managers, Nica followed the advise of Monk and bought herself a house in New Jersey. Monk named the house ‘Catsville’ in reference to the “cats” –musicians- who hung out there. This name was then changed to the ‘Cathouse’, because of the hundred or so cats the ardent animal rights activist Nica took in.
The house, with its large bay windows, had imposing views of midtown Manhattan and the Hudson River. It was here that Nica and her protégés had finally found a place to relax, rehearse and jam in freedom. The New Jersey house was also the location for many of the Polaroid photographs included in ‘Three Wishes”.
The premise for “Three Wishes” was simple; each Polaroid would be accompanied by the subject’s response to the question, “What are your three wishes?” The responses tell us much about the concerns of the subjects and the times they were living through. With the war raging in Vietnam, and the struggles for racial equality, the 60’s and 70’s was a time of huge civil unrest in the USA. American Jazz was also in crisis. With the commercial dominance of Pop, driven by the “British Invasion” of the 60’s, many of the traditional venues for Jazz were disappearing and it was becoming increasingly difficult for jazz musicians to find a gig. In addition to “Three Wishes” betraying some of these concerns for peace and equality a number of the musicians express a desire for the cultural contribution of jazz music to be recognised. Some feeling, with some justification, that their talent had not been acknowledged culturally and certainly not financially.
In 1988 Pannonica de Koenigswarter made her last public appearance at the opening of Clint Eastwood’s film “Bird”, about the life of Charlie Parker. In November that year she was hospitalized for triple bypass surgery and died during the operation, she was 74. Her last wishes were for her ashes to be scattered in the Hudson River around midnight, in reference to Monk’s “Round Midnight”. The book, “Three Wishes”, was eventually published in 2008 by Abrams Image Books.
The high regard in which Nica was held by the musicians she had helped and befriended is evidenced by the number of songs dedicated to her, there are nearly twenty in total. They include “Nica”, by Sonny Clark; “Tonica”, by Kenny Dorham; “Blues for Nica”, by Kenny Drew; “Thelonica”, by tommy Flanagan; “Nica’s Dream”, by Horace Silver; “Nica’s Tempo”, by Gigi Gryce; “Pannonica”, by Duke Jordan; “Nica Steps Out”, by Freddie Redd; “A Waltz for the Baroness”, by Ray Draper; “Here Nica”, by Mathew Gee; “Pannonica’s Nocturne”, by Samir Safwat; “Inca”, by James Spaulding; “Nica” and Theme for Nica”, by Eddie Thompson; “Inca et Nicaragua” by Barry Harris; “My Nica the Girl I Love”, by Bliss Bowman and Thelonious Monk’s “Weehawken Mad Pad” Here are just a few: