Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The glamorous heiress who devoted her life to jazz

By Stephanie Busari, CNN and Tara Kelly for CNN
updated 6:36 AM EDT, Thu May 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British Baroness of Rothschild family abandoned her family for New York jazz scene
  • As the 'the jazz baroness,' she mingled with greats including Charlie Parker, Miles Davies
  • Love of music helped her build a life-long friendship with jazz great Thelonious Monk

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

London (CNN) -- The jazz record was only three minutes long, but it was enough time to cast a spell on a wealthy European heiress who became determined to meet the artist behind the beautiful ballad with the haunting overtones.

That record was "Round Midnight," by a relatively unknown jazz pianist Thelonious Monk and hearing it would herald the start of a life-long friendship between him and heiress Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Born into the hugely wealthy Rothschild banking dynasty and married to a French diplomat, the baroness, known as Nica, gave up a world of privilege for the love of jazz and devoted herself to Monk, who was considered one of America's great musical geniuses.

Oprah: Being a brand is difficult
Huffington: Success on your terms
Sheryl Sandberg's challenge to women

She later became known as "the Jazz Baroness"—and could be spotted mingling with music legends of the bebop era, such as Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and Miles Davis.

To explore Nica's elusive past, Hannah Rothschild tells her great aunt's mysterious life story in her book, "The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the rebellious Rothschild".

Nica was first touched by jazz in 1948 while on a trip to New York. Just before catching a flight to join her family, she stopped to visit a friend, the jazz musician Teddy Wilson who put on "Round Midnight."

WATCH: YouTube video of Thelonius Monk performing "Round Midnight"

After hearing that record, the baroness' life changed forever, recalls Rothschild. "It was like the vinyl version of a spell being cast."

"It quite literally spirited her from one world to another and she never went home. That was it. She missed every single plane, stayed in New York, determined to meet this man Thelonious Monk."

In that very moment, she left her husband and five children behind and devoted herself to meeting the legendary musician.

Armed with a mile long cigarette holder, a fur coat and a set of pearls, Nica could be found swaying to the blues in the big apple's jazz clubs or ferrying bands to performances in her convertible Bentley.

READ: What the best jazz artists and business brains have in common

But Nica didn't find herself in the presence of Monk until some years later at the 'Salon du Jazz 1954' concert in Paris. She was introduced to Monk backstage by a mutual friend - pianist Mary Lou Williams -- "and once they met they were inseparable", notes Rothschild.

Though Monk was married, the relationship between the Baroness and him remained platonic, according to Rothschild's research.

"I believe what kept them together was their love of music, particularly his music might I add. A real sense of companionship and friendship."

Part of Nica's passion for jazz could be traced back to her experience during World War II.

With Jewish relatives disappearing in the Holocaust, she played an active role in the war and even fought in the battlefields of Africa for Charles De Gaulle's Free French Army in Congo. After serving in numerous capacities, she ended the war as a decorated lieutenant.

READ: Superstar opera singer's success story

"It quite literally spirited her from one world to another and she never went home. That was it.
Great niece Hannah Rothschild

"She had a very interesting war and when she came back it was impossible for her to settle down to a life of normalcy and domesticity," explains Rothschild.

While Nica never took up composing or playing music herself, she remained a friend and philanthropist to the genre. As a result, she was a source of material for a dozen songs composed by jazz greats. Songs included Sonny Clark's "Nica", Kenny Dorham's "Tonica", Tommy Flanagan's "Thelonica"—to name a few.

The baroness remained close friends with Monk, funding his performances and even went to jail for him. The incident happened in 1958 when police stopped the pair en route to an out-of-town gig and found a small amount of Monk's marijuana in her car.

Nica claimed it was hers and she was sentenced to three years in prison.

After a two-year legal battle funded by the Rothschild's, the case was dismissed on a technicality in the appeal court.

In Monk's last years, he suffered from mental health problems and withdrew from playing jazz altogether by secluding himself in Nica's New Jersey home. But at his funeral—Monk died in 1982, from a stroke, both his wife Nellie and Nica were greeted by mourners as widows.

READ: 12 women entrepreneurs of the last century

Six years after Monk's death, Nica passed away, aged 74, after undergoing a heart valve operation.

Though Rothschild only met her great aunt a handful of times on her visits to New York, she was devastated by the loss. "I went into a silent mourning of not having spent more time with her and not having asked those questions," recalls Rothschild.

"It occurred to me one day that just because somebody has died or passed on, it doesn't mean that your relationship with them is completely over."

And each time Rothschild listens to that infamous Monk record, she wonders, "Maybe this time it'll change my life and I'll leave my children and my country and my friends—but it hasn't happened yet."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
bbf
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
updated 5:14 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
updated 7:15 AM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
:KNOXVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Dolly Parton performs during a concert to benefit Dolly's Imagination Library & Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation at The University of Tennessee's Thompson-boling Arena on May 28, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 05: Debbie Harry of Blondie performs onstage at the Amnesty International Concert presented by the CBGB Festival at Barclays Center on February 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)
When titans of music Dolly Parton and Debbie Harry perform at one of the biggest music festivals on the planet, Glastonbury, who will be crowned queen?
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the many women in the world who have provided care, love and guidance for children who are not biologically their own.
updated 11:06 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most inhabitable environments on Earth.
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
updated 11:50 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
updated 3:50 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
Ahead of the release of her 14th studio album, take a look at the remarkable career of Mariah Carey, who went from curly-haired girl next door to elusive chanteuse.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
ADVERTISEMENT