Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Known fondly as "Nica" or "the Baroness," jazz's most generous and colorful benefactor in the 1950s and beyond had extraordinary access to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Bud Powell, Miles Davis and many other jazz greats. Such access allowed Nica to compile an extraordinary collection of candid snapshots of the jazz greats she knew and assisted.
In a handsome new book, Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, Nica's photographs have been assembled by her granddaughter, Nadine de Koenigswarter, who wrote a detail-rich introduction. Gary Giddins penned the forward. From the dozens of color and black-and-white images, we see clearly that Nica truly was jazz's best friend. The wealthy anti-socialite provided America's greatest jazz artists with much-needed camaraderie, health assistance, financial support and shelter. It's not a stretch to say that without Nica's financial and emotional backing, some artists might not have been as productive in the recording studio and clubs while others might have become ill and remained so longer.
Born in 1913, Nica was the daughter of Charles Rothschild, a banker and entomologist. Her formal first name, Pannonica, came from the name of an exotic butterfly her father discovered in Hungary. Nica married Jules de Koenigswarter in 1935, traveled to Africa with him, and served in the Free French army during World War II. After the war, her husband became a diplomat, plunging Nica into a life of stark loneliness that she soon grew to detest.
After separating from her husband in 1952, Nica moved to New York, to the Hotel Stanhope across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Ave. Captivated as a child by her father's extensive jazz record collection, Nica began attending jazz clubs and concerts. At Teddy Wilson's home, she was introduced to the music of Thelonious Monk. In 1954, upon hearing Monk was to perform in Paris, Nica flew to France and was introduced to him. The two would forge an unusual relationship, despite Monk's marital status.
Back in New York, Nica achieved some tabloid notoriety when Charlie Parker died in her Stanhope Hotel apartment in March 1955 ("Bop King Dies in Heiress' Flat"). Nica had thick skin and ignored the flack. Art always meant more to Nica than stuff or the banality of color. When she wasn't club-hopping in her Bentley S1, Nica taught many musicians how to deal tactfully with club owners and helped Monk win back his cabaret card in 1957. She also convinced New York Mayor John Lindsay to scrap the discriminatory rule that required nightclub musicians to have their fingerprints on file.
Nica eventually bought a home in Weehawken, N.J., that was fondly named "the Cathouse," for the large number of felines she took in and the jazz artists who hung out there. In 1988, in failing health, Nica underwent triple bypass surgery but died during the operation. In accordance with Nica's will, her ashes were scattered in the Hudson River around midnight, in tribute to Monk's 'Round Midnight. [Pictured: Nica and Bud Powell at the Cathouse in Weehawken, N.J.]
The title of the book Three Wishes, refers to the question Nica asked many of the musicians she knew: "If you were given three wishes, to be instantly granted, what would they be?" Their answers appear throughout the book and are both whimsical and revealing. For example, Monk's wishes were: "To be successful musically, to have a happy family, and to have a crazy friend like you."
What makes the photos in Three Wishes so remarkable is their rawness. Many of the unpretentious snapshots show jazz legends "off duty." Lacking the professional photographer's eye or training to set up subjects, Nica simply fired off shots that today tell a fascinating silent story. They also are revealing, since we see jazz legends' faces relaxed rather than contorted or posed for a professional photographer's lens.
The unfiltered images wind up seeming like stills from some unfinished jazz documentary. There's also a quiet quality to them that doesn't exist in many professional photographs, which too often try too hard to tease out a subject's cool side.
Nica's photos in Three Wishes are delightfully un-cool. Which, of course, makes them extremely cool. Going through the pages, you're instantly struck by how unassuming these legends are. It's the same sensation you feel when viewing photos of movie stars without their hair or makeup done. We see artists sitting, eating, talking and playing their instruments. Most of all, we see photos of Nica's friends who just also happened to be jazz greats.
Ultimately, you come to view Three Wishes as a family scrapbook rather than the stylistic portfolio of a hot-shot magazine photographer. The difference between the two is that in Nica's book, you can hear the music playing.
From reader David Langner:
"Great piece on Johnny Mandel. I thought I'd pass along two of my favorite sides that feature Mandel's arrangements. The first is the 1955 Cy Touff Octet/Quintet side on Pacific Jazz featuring Richie Kamuca, plus Sweets Edison and the legendary Conrad Gozzo on lead trumpet on the octet numbers. This is an extraordinary record that features Keester Parade. The second is a circa 1960 Mel Torme big band date for Verve called I Dig The Duke, I Dig the Count." Check it out—it's a winner with Mel in top form, great charts and a fabulous band."
Editor's note: The Cy Touff date is here, and the Mel Torme date is here.
From Bruce Armstrong, grandson of Harry Reser, the bandleader who headed the Clicquot Club Eskimos and for whom Johnny's cousin played drums:
"I just recently became aware of JazzWax and have really enjoyed reading it. Your interviews and historical articles are excellent. There is no place else that I know of—Internet or print—that compares.
I really enjoyed the interviews with Johnny Mandel. Despite the fact that Johnny is an absolute legend of modern music, I have not read much about him. It filled in a lot of biographical gaps for me.
On a personal note, I really got a kick out of Johnny mentioning his cousin, Mel Rosenbach, as one who was an early influence in his making music a career. As Johnny correctly states, Mel was playing drums with Harry Reser’s Clicquot Club Eskimos at the time. Harry Reser was my grandfather. My late mother (Gerry) was Harry's youngest daughter.
I knew Mel quite well back in the 1970s. Mel would often visit my mother, and he had a million stories to tell about his years in the music business (he toured for many years with the international chanteuse Hildegarde) and about his young cousin, Johnny Mandel. What a small world!"
From Michael Palmer in Australia:
"Congratulations on the Johnny Mandel interview. Up to your usual high standards. I may have missed it but did one of my favorites not get a mention? This would be Jo + Jazz, a wonderful recording that was hidden away for years and is now available on Corinthian. It features the magnificent Jo Stafford, Johnny Mandel, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster. Who could ask for anything more?"
The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Following my post last week on the 1948 film theme song that wound up becoming a jazz standard, I received a bunch of emails from fans of the standard:
From Ira Gitler, the legendary jazz writer, producer and author:
"As your post appeared on my screen, I immediately readied myself as I scrolled down to hip you to Harry Belafonte's recording. Then, lo and behold, there it was in 10th place. I can't rate it because it's in a class by itself thanks to Zoot's solo, which I once described as listening to it from the back end of an empty ballroom."
From WKCR-NY disc jockey Sid Gribetz:
"The Night Has a Thousand Eyes is right up there as one of my favorite "obscure" standards. And the John Coltrane, and Horace Silver-Hank Mobley versions are both special to me, as they are on your list. A couple more for your consideration:
Nick Brignola, on Like Old Times. It's a little fast, but still captures the mysterioso meaningfulness of the song. And Dick Katz's piano trio on 3 Way Play. This one's a little playful, but still intriguing."
From reader Bruce Armstrong:
"The song has always been one of my favorites. I first became aware of it in college through the John Coltrane recording, but always enjoyed Carmen McRae’s vocal version on her Second To None LP, a forgotten gem that is almost impossible to find as a CD. I bought that album when I was in college in the mid-60s and I still consider it one of Carmen’s greatest. Peter Matz wrote wonderful arrangements of a whole lineup of great tunes, including Once Upon a Summertime, Blame It on My Youth and In Love In Vain."
Nelson Riddle. Rosemary Acerra, daughter of the late, great Hollywood arranger Nelson Riddle, has started a newsletter that focuses on news about her dad's recordings, scores and tributes. To subscribe to the thrice-annual publication, send a $20 check (payable to Nelson Riddle Music) to:
Nelson Riddle Music
186 Enclave Blvd.
Lakewood, N.J. 08701
Defending jazz magazines. WFIU's David Brent Johnson, host of the station's Night Lights jazz radio show, this week wrote an editorial that took exception with a blog post at the Princeton Record Exchange. The blogger argued that jazz magazines offer little more than "PR cliches and tame thinking." David wages a smart argument against that point. Go here to read both views.