Posted: 11/25/2009


HBO Premier of Jazz Baroness Hits a High Note


by Annie Vinton

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Premiers on HBO Wednesday, November 25th at 8pm
My take: Hits a High Note

All of the great mysterious love stories are those that can’t be explained by the mere eye, they’re only understood if felt by the heart. Hannah Rothschild, director of Jazz Baroness, takes us on an intimate journey of her great aunt Pannonica Rothschild (Nica) who had an unlikely passion for jazz and an amazing empathy and support for these musicians.

The centerpiece and inspiration for this documentary is the love story between Nica and jazz great Thelonius Monk. On the outside, these two couldn’t be more different - she a white European Jew born a heiress; and he an African American hailing from the South, an ancestor of slaves. Director Rothschild successfully uncovers some beautiful truths of music, friendship and love including what drove the intangible attraction between the two, while educating the audience of other jazz greats.

Named after a type of moth by her father, but described as a butterfly by Nica, she metaphorically took on this moniker in life, cocooning from her privileged life in Europe; then escaping to America at a time when Jews were being captured and killed; and eventually, spreading her wings, landing in New York City in quest of the jazz community that found sanctuary there as well.

The documentary doesn’t delve too deeply into her life as a wife and a mother, but more so it centers on how she was revered by the jazz community, embracing the culture so much that she would retrieve musicians’ instruments from pawn shops, pay their rents, feed them, go to prison for them and nurse them, as she did with Charlie “Bird” Parker. He eventually died in her Stanhope pad, creating a cloud of controversy in regards to the actual occurrence of his death.

This story is well told by Rothschild who uses interviews with people who ran in Nica’s circles like Sonny Rollins, TS Monk Junior, The Duchess of Devonshire, Quincy Jones, Lord Rothschild, Roy Haynes, Chico Hamilton and others.

Nica was considered by many of the jazz musicians she supported to be a woman ahead of her time, and one who approached her life with fearless abandon and without concern of what others thought of her extraordinary, unordinary lifestyle.

Director Rothschild realized she was related to Nica not long before her death and was determined to unravel some of the mystery of this woman whom she felt so closely connected due to her quest for a more meaningful life than the one that would thrust her into the role of a woman of high society with expected obligations, duties and thoughts. Along the way, she succeeds, unveiling some of her own self-discovery.

Jazz Baroness premiers Wednesday, November 25 at 8pmET on HBO and without a will doubt hit a high note.

Annie Vinton Annie Vinton is a freelance writer and film critic living in NYC. You can read more about her and her writing at her blog here.

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