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'Thelonious Monk': Jazz Eccentric
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Robin D.G. Kelley, has written a
new biography of the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, whose dissonant
harmonies and angular rhythms have had a profound and lasting impact on jazz.
Kelley says his research debunks several myths about Monk. For instance, Monk
has often been portrayed as eccentric, but Kelley says Monk actually suffered
from bipolar disorder. Monk was sometimes portrayed as primitive or childlike,
but Kelley says Monk possessed an impressive knowledge of and appreciation for
Western classical music, gospel music, American popular songs, and art song.
Kelley's book is based in part on conversations with Monk's surviving
relatives, including his widow Nellie, who died while Kelley was researching
the book. Kelley also had access to tapes of Monk's music and conversations
recorded by Nellie and the photographer W. Eugene Smith.
Robin Kelley is a professor of history and American studies at the University
of Southern California. His book is called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times
of an American Original." Monk was born in 1917 and died in 1982. Let's start
with Monk's first recording of his most famous composition, "'Round Midnight."
This is a 1947 Blue Note recording.
(Soundbite of song, "'Round Midnight")
GROSS: That's Thelonious Monk at the piano, playing his composition "'Round
Midnight." This is his first recording of it, from 1947. My guest is Robin
Kelley, the author of a new biography of Monk. Robin D.G. Kelley, welcome to
FRESH AIR. So Robin, tell us the story behind "'Round Midnight." How did Monk
Mr. ROBIN D.G. KELLEY (Author): Sure. The song was originally called "I Need
You So." It's one of my great discoveries. And it was written with lyrics, and
he worked with a friend of his who lived in the neighborhood, a woman named
Thelma Elizabeth Murray(ph), and she wrote these beautiful lyrics to the song,
and it was a love song. It was his attempt to get a hit, because one of his
goals was to get a hit.
But he copyrighted the song in 1943. This is four years before he first
recorded it, but he could not get his own recording. Eventually, Cootie
Williams, the bandleader, basically made the first recording of it. Bud Powell,
who was a pianist himself, who was one of Monk's friends and hung out with
Monk, convinced Cootie to record it, and Cootie added an interlude, and when he
recorded it, which is typical of bandleaders, he put his name on as a co-
composer, and later he found another lyricist, a man named Bernie Hannigan(ph),
and he put his name on as a co-composer. So in the end, not only did Monk not
make the first recording, but from that point on he became a third owner of the
song, and to this day the Monk estate only gets a third of the royalties as a
GROSS: Now, you discovered that the song was originally called "I Need You So,"
and a friend of Monk's wrote a lyric for it. Could you read, or better yet
sing, the lyrics for us?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KELLEY: I can't sing. I can play the piano, but I can't sing. I will read
some of the lyrics here. Let's see, let me just find it. And there's a story
behind the lyric because he was just beginning his relationship with the woman
who'd become his wife, Nellie Monk, and when Thelma Elizabeth Murray wrote the
lyrics, I'm convinced that, you know, for Thelonious at least, it spoke to his
sense of loss when she went away to college and came back. And so some of the
lyrics are: Since you went away, I missed you. Every hour, I wish to kiss you.
You are in my dreams always. I need you so.
And then in the bridge, she wrote: You are my own. Still, I am all alone,
longing, waiting. I love you so, darling. This is why I'll go on believing
you'll be standing by my side sooner than I realize. I need you so.
GROSS: Monk invented his own piano style. How would you describe some of Monk's
compositional and pianistic innovations?
Mr. KELLEY: Well, there - a few things. One, Monk loved dissonance, and by
dissonance, those clashing intervals, you know? Sometimes he'll play, like, an
F and F sharp at the same time. Now, on the one hand, that sounds like it's
innovative and fresh and new, but a lot of these devices, the dissonance, the
kind of off-meter playing, these are devices that he learned from the old-
stride pianists in Harlem, people like James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion
Smith. He just took it to a more exaggerated place.
GROSS: Wait, wait. When you say he learned from them personally, like watching
them or listening to their records?
Mr. KELLEY: Well, personally, I mean, one of the things that amazes me about
Monk's story no one's really written about before my book is the fact that he
spent as much time hanging out with these old pianists in the late '30s and
early '40s as he did with sort of the bebop young musicians, and so there's a
great story that Billy Taylor tells in the book where, you know, he ends up
going to James P. Johnson's house.
He doesn't realize where he is, and he's there, and all these piano players, a
guy named Gippy(ph) and Clarence Profit and Willie The Lion Smith, and there's,
you know, young Thelonious Monk playing stride piano with everyone else. These
little parlors became really spaces for musicians to show off and teach each
other and really just celebrate the instrument of the piano.
And so Monk is very much rooted in these older traditions, and so he would take
these old practices, even the bent notes that he played, and he'd take that
James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion and, you know, give it a kind of modern
And then the other thing about Monk is that, you know, he came up at a time
when bebop was taking off, and piano players used their left hand less
frequently, whereas the old-fashioned players always used the left hand.
Playing â having a strong left hand was part of what made you a pianist. So
Monk was able to retain that strong left hand, and when you listen to him play,
his left hand had such great independence that if you just listen to the lower
notes, they're very carefully placed. They're not just supporting the
harmonies. They're rhythmically rich and fascinating, and they have their own
kind of counter-melodies.
So he has a melody on the right and a melody on the left going at the same
GROSS: Well, I want to play "Trinkle, Tinkle," which is one of Monk's
compositions, and his left hand is so strong on this. You know, Max Roach is
the drummer on this track, but it sounds like there's two drummers almost, you
know, Monk's left hand and Roach.
Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So say something about "Trinkle, Tinkle" and this recording of it and
what's special about it to you.
Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, well, "Trinkle, Tinkle" is one of my favorites. Most people
know the version he did with John Coltrane, but this is the first recording,
made in 1952, and Max Roach, as you mentioned, is the drummer. Gary Mapp is the
bass player, and to me it is an example of Monk's virtuosity as a piano player.
And like you say, you know, his left and right hand, the independence of them
both, make the song, but he is able to, I think, recover or restore the sort of
old-stride pianist's little tricks with his right hand, and he has this kind of
rhythmic sensibility that's so strong and so powerful. He swings so hard that
he's always on the beat, you know. Even when he seems to be floating away from
it, the beat's always there, and it's a very difficult song to play, I'll put
it that way.
GROSS: And just one other thing. His runs are so great and so off-kilter.
Mr. KELLEY: They are, definitely.
GROSS: Okay, so this is "Trinkle, Tinkle," recorded in 1952, Thelonious Monk.
(Soundbite of song, "Trinkle, Tinkle")
GROSS: That's Thelonious Monk's 1952 version of "Trinkle, Tinkle," his own
composition. Robin, is that his first recording of it?
Mr. KELLEY: That's his first recording of it, yeah.
GROSS: Max Roach was featured on drums. My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley, and he's
written a new biography of Thelonious Monk called "Thelonious Monk: The Life
and Times of an American Original."
What was going on in Monk's life when he recorded "Trinkle, Tinkle" in 1952?
Mr. KELLEY: Well, it was a very difficult time. Nellie, his wife, called it the
un-years, you know, U-N, un-years, because in 1951, in August, he had been
arrested for possession of heroin. The short version of the story is that he
was in a car with Bud Powell and two people he did not know. Bud Powell had a
glassine envelope with heroin in it.
When the police pulled up just to investigate the car sitting in front of
Monk's house, Bud Powell threw the heroin in front of the car, and it landed at
Monk's feet. He â they all were arrested, but it was Thelonious who served
He ended up serving 60 days - Rikers Island in the work house, and he never did
turn Bud Powell in, you know, which â it would be unusual if he did, but he
ended up taking the rap.
What's interesting and probably worse than the jail sentence is that he lost
his cabaret card, and in New York City, as a result of a law that was passed in
1940, everyone who worked in establishments that served alcohol, because of the
cabaret laws, had to have a cabaret card. The police issued these cards and
they also took them away.
And so because this was Thelonious' second conviction, he'd been arrested for
drug possession in '48, he lost his card indefinitely, and so from 1951 until
the spring of 1957, he had no cabaret card, and that meant that, in theory, he
could not work in places that served alcohol in New York. That's the bad news.
The good news is that thanks to the outer boroughs, places like Brooklyn and
the Bronx and black-owned clubs, Monk was able to find some work, but it wasn't
enough to sustain his family. I mean, his wife worked constantly. He had a
small son. He was born December '49, and it was a real struggle then. And these
recording sessions, few and far between, were one very small source of income.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Thelonious Monk with
Robin D.G. Kelley, who's just written a biography of Monk. It's called
"Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." Let's take a
short break here, and then we'll talk more about Monk. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Robin D.G. Kelley, and we're
talking about his biography of the great composer and pianist, Thelonious Monk.
Monk also had problems with his mental health. Were there signs of that early
on? Later in life, it disabled him. Later in life, there were periods where he
was just about catatonic, but in the early '50s, at the time of the recording
we just heard, what was his mental health like then?
Mr. KELLEY: You know, that's a good question. I find evidence of bipolar
disorder, you know, the manic depression, and these cycles of manic depression,
as early as the 1940s. But these examples, the evidence always got portrayed as
examples of Monk's eccentricities, you know, that he would be up for two or
three days at a time. Then he'd crash. He'd go from house to house, looking for
This became part of the story or the lore around Monk, but of course no one
knew about bipolar disorder in the 1940s and couldn't see it as a diagnosis.
By the '50s, and around the time he made these recordings, he was pretty
stable, but as the decade progressed, his cycles became more frequent, and they
got worse. And so 1957, late '56, actually, Christmas '56, he was hospitalized
for the first time, taken to Bellevue Hospital after he got into a small
fender-bender with someone, and the police didn't know what to do with him, and
he was sort of standing there uncommunicative.
And he ended up spending about three weeks in Bellevue with no diagnosis. A
couple of years later, he ends up at Grafton State Hospital in Massachusetts,
and there he is diagnosed with depression, and they give him Thorazine.
And the thing about Monk's experience with mental illness, there are two things
I try to establish in the book. One is that these incidents were episodic. You
know, he wasn't constantly unraveling. There were just moments, in fact they
were almost seasonal, when he would unravel.
And he got â the second thing is that he got very bad medical care, and it's
not â you know, race has something to do with it, but it's not just that. A lot
of it has to do with the fact that the state of psychiatry just isn't where it
is today, and so a lot of the diagnosis was sort of, you know, not clear. The
medication was kind of problematic. Thorazine was the antipsychotic drug of
choice, and it didn't help Monk at all in terms of handling these episodes.
GROSS: One of the things Monk became known for that was considered a sign of
his eccentricity is that sometimes on the bandstand or outside of the club, he
would just start spinning around in circles, and you know, some people say, oh,
he was dancing, and now I know â some people think of this as a sign of
autistic behavior, and I wonder if you've thought about that at all.
Mr. KELLEY: I thought about it and rejected it.
GROSS: Tell me why.
Mr. KELLEY: Only because Monk was very clear about dance. I mean â and he also
wasn't the only musician who got up and danced, actually. You know, he was the
one who was the most famous, but he loved to dance with music and he used
dancing in various ways, one to conduct the band. Ask any drummer, and they
would say when Monk got up to dance, he actually would give you the accents
that he wanted. He would basically show you and demonstrate what he wanted to
do. And there's a wonderful moment during his rehearsal for his big band in
1959, when his French horn player, we know as Brother Ah(ph), couldn't get the
So Monk takes a break, takes him to the corner, and he dances the whole part.
He dances his part, and it's like all of a sudden it just clicked and he
understood exactly what he needed to do. They went back to the rehearsal,
played it just fine.
And then Monk does come out of a tradition of dance. When he was a teenager, he
was one of the hoofers. He was among the tap-dancers in his neighborhood, where
everyone tap-danced. So I see the dancing as dancing.
GROSS: Interesting. A lot of jazz musicians, during the period that Monk
played, had problems with heroin and with alcohol. How much did that affect â
you know, did Monk have a heroin habit? Did he drink a lot? Were those problems
Mr. KELLEY: They were problems. Drinking probably was more of a problem than
heroin, and I talk about this in terms of the environmental hazards of the
GROSS: Of jazz clubs at the time.
Mr. KELLEY: Of jazz clubs, exactly. I mean, think about what it means to work
in place where the raison d'Ãªtre is to sell alcohol - I mean, that's what that
do â and where they really encourage musicians to run up a tab as a way to
reduce the night's payment.
And so Monk, you know, he liked Wild Turkey, he liked Old Granddad bourbon. He
drank quite a bit. He smoked reefer, but then everyone was smoking reefer, you
know, in those days, to the point where â I mean marijuana was legal up to
1937. You know, it wasn't a federal crime before '37.
Heroin was something he used intermittently. He was never an addict, but he was
very carnivalesque about what he would take, up to a point, and then his
nephew, Ronnie Newkirk(ph), died of a heroin overdose, and that set him off. I
mean, he didn't touch it after that point, and he really was on his nieces and
nephews and children about drug use, you know, became â reacted very, very
strongly to his nephew's death.
GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley will be back in the second half of the show. His new
book is called "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music by Thelonious Monk)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Robin D.G. Kelley. Before we talk
more about his new biography of the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk,
let's hear a Monk composition dedicated to his wife Nellie. This is Monk's 1957
recording of "Crepuscule With Nellie."
(Soundbite of song, "Crepuscule With Nellie")
GROSS: That's "Crepuscule With Nellie. Thelonious Monk's composition as Monk
recorded it in 1957. And it's interesting that both Coleman Hawkins and John
Coltrane are featured on this track. Like two great saxophonists representing
two very different styles, two different generations. Hawkins is a very, you
know, very early on in jazz. Coltrane ushers in, you know, a new era.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did Monk have good relationships with both of them?
Mr. KELLEY: Coleman Hawkins was the first musician to hire Monk regularly, so
Monk revered Hawkins. Monk always said that every saxophone player has a little
bit of Hawkins in him. He loved Coltrane and in some ways, the roles were
reversed. Monk hired Coltrane when after Miles Davis basically fired him and
really taught Coltrane a lot. So there's a kind of mentorship relationship
between all three of them.
And finally, you know, for Coleman Hawkins, you know, he had this line he
always said. He said, you know, the music never goes seasonal to me. Meaning
that he couldnât abide by this sort of modern swing, old new distinctions,
because for him, he was always hip, always on the cutting edge no matter where
the music is going. And so for Coltrane and Hawkins to play together, for
Hawkins, it made perfect sense, you know.
GROSS: So "Crepuscule With Nellie" is dedicated to Monk's wife, Nellie, who did
so much to help him through his life. What are some of the things she did to
take care of him?
Mr. KELLEY: Well, you know, they knew each other since they were teenagers,
really, and they grew up in the same neighborhood. So Nellie, you know, knew
Monk very, very well and in many ways, during the first early years of their
lives, she worked. You know, she worked as a hotel elevator operator at the
Hotel Taft. She worked for Chock Full o'Nuts.
She had all these odd jobs to make it when Monk couldnât find work. She, you
know, raised two children but she spent a lot of time on the road with
Thelonious first as a road manager in some ways, traveling with him. She made
sure he was ready, dressed, you know, always you know, looking good.
And later, when his health began to really fall apart, she took over a lot of
the functions of the band. She would hire and fire musicians. She was, you
know, making arrangements and dates, and she was basically doing everything
until it got to be too much for her.
GROSS: There's another woman very important in Monk's life, the Baroness
Pannonica de Koenigswarter. And she was actually a Rothschild. Koenigswarter
was her husband's name. So she was a Rothschild. She had pedigree and had more
money than Monk did. They met in Paris when Monk was performing there and she
moved to New York. They became very close. She helped take of him. He lived
with her during the last years of his life.
Mr. KELLEY: Yeah.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about the nature of their relationship.
Mr. KELLEY: Sure. As you said, they met in '54. They became very close friends.
And it's very important to establish that she also became close friends with
Nellie. And this is something I've been trying to say...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KELLEY: ...for a long time. It's almost like a lot of people donât hear
this part. All three of them were friends. She was as close to Nellie as she
was as close to Monk.
GROSS: Are you saying a lot of people thought well, Nica and - the Baroness was
called Nica - Pannonica...
Mr. KELLEY: Right.
GROSS: ...Nica short for that. So youâre saying that a lot of people thought
that Nica and Monk's relationship was probably more than platonic and that
Mr. KELLEY: Right.
GROSS: ...must've been angry about it, but that wasnât the case.
Mr. KELLEY: That wasnât the case. I mean the rumors that they had a romantic
relationship or the other rumor that Nellie and Nica competed -and it's not the
case at all. They both worked together in Thelonious' interest. And, you know,
she was like an aunt to kids and like a, you know, sister-in-law to Nellie in
some ways. And she was very, very important at certain moments in Monk's life
when he needed help, when he needed to get his cabaret card back for example.
GROSS: And you know what, something else that Nica did for Monk - during the
period when he didnât have a piano, she got a piano at her place and he could
come over and play there.
Mr. KELLEY: Yes. Yes, beautiful sentiment.
GROSS: And during the last few years of his life he lived with her. And this is
a kind of, you know, mysterious thing. He's married to Nellie but he's living
with Nica. How come?
Mr. KELLEY: Well, in 1973, it was clear that, you know, she couldnât take care
of him. His condition had worsened. He had been hospitalized again. And so
everyone decided it would make more sense for him to live in the house in
Weehawken, New Jersey.
The important part of the story is that Nellie came over just about every day
on the bus. She'd cook for him. She'd take care of him. He had his own floor.
He had the second floor of the house. So she was still very much his wife and
Nica basically had the space and resources to make sure he was well cared for
during those last years.
GROSS: My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley. We'll talk more about his biography of
Thelonious Monk after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music by Thelonious Monk)
GROSS: My guest is Robin D.G. Kelley. He's written a new biography of the jazz
composer and pianist Thelonious Monk.
Well, let's get back to some music.
Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Youâve chosen some things for us to hear and the next one is Monk's
version of "Nice Work If You Can Get It," the Gershwin song. And this is from
1964. I love Monk's recordings of pop songs, because he reworks them.
Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Like you can tell he loves the melody.
Mr. KELLEY: Yeah.
GROSS: You can tell he loves old songs - not that this one was that old, but,
you know, he recorded older ones too. But you could tell he loves the song and
yet, he reworks it.
Mr. KELLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: He completely - he changes the harmonies and alters the rhythms. Talk to
us about his version of "Nice Work" and why you chose it.
Mr. KELLEY: Yeah. Well, "Nice Work" is a song that's been in his repertoire
since the 40s and he loves it because he loves Gershwin's sort of use of
certain sonorities. You know, for the technical people, itâs the flat 9th. But
it's a certain sound that Monk loved and he loved the fact that the harmonies
moved in chromatic descending ways and it was just match his own compositional
And what's interesting about Monk and these old standards is that he didnât
stray too far. I mean he put his own imprint on it but he would play on the
elements that are already there. And he just loved - and Gershwin's a great
GROSS: And you were talking earlier about the influence of the stride pianists
on Monk and we'll certainly hear it in this.
Mr. KELLEY: Yes. Thelonious became even more invested in the stride piano by
the time he made this recording in 1962, I believe - '64, I'm sorry, '64. And
for him, what's interesting is that he's returning back to an older style at a
moment when jazz itself is sort of moving towards the kind of avant-garde
sensibility. And Monk, as a way to distinguish himself from the avant-garde,
really returns back to these old traditional forms.
GROSS: all right. So this is Thelonious Monk's 1964 recording of "Nice Work If
You Can Get It."
(Soundbite of song, "Nice Work If You Can Get It")
GROSS: That's Monk playing Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It," recorded
in 1964. My guest, Robin D.G. Kelley has written a new biography of Thelonious
What was going on in Monk's life when he recorded that?
Mr. KELLEY: Well, '64 was in some ways Monk's year. He was on the cover of Time
Magazine, you know, in February of '64.
GROSS: What was he doing on the cover? What was the angle?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KELLEY: Well, the short version of the story is that Barry Farrell, who
wrote the cover story, wanted to write about jazz musicians and almost by
default Monk was chosen, because they thought Ray Charles and Miles Davis were
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KELLEY: So Monk was chosen. I know it's funny, huh when you think about it.
Monk was chosen and the article became a story about Monk's weirdness,
eccentricities and his drug use. You know, on the one hand and on the other
hand it became a story about Monk not being so weird, because in fact, in this
day when black jazz musicians seemed to be more militant and complaining and
whining about racism, Monk had no complaints. That Monk in fact was the safer
bet, you know, because he wasnât so political. You know, and soâ¦ And, of
course, I challenge that, but still, in some ways the cover story was a way of
kind of presenting a more tame Monk while still presenting him as the eccentric
GROSS: Monk died in 1982. How did he die?
Mr. KELLEY: Cerebral hemorrhage. He basically had a stroke. He was living at
Nica's house and he, you know, his days were pretty much the same. He'd get up,
take a shower, get dressed, get back in bed. And he'd take walks. He'd watch
TV. He rarely played the piano. So he was very sad - very sad existence but he
seemed, you know, mentally he was very stable. No more manic episodes. So he
died of a stroke, much like his wife did, you know, 20 years later.
GROSS: I'd like to end with another recording that youâve brought with you, and
this "Blue Sphere" recorded in 1971. What's the significance of this recording?
Mr. KELLEY: This was Monk's last recording session as a leader. And this was in
London. He was actually on tour with The Giants of Jazz, which is a kind of
group with Dizzy Gillespie and others. And, you know, I love this recording
because hereâs Monk in the studio. A lot of it's solo piano, and this is solo
piano - it's blues, he makes up this blues on the spot, and you could hear that
he hasnât lost his touch. He hasn't lost his sense of imagination, his
facility. His health is terrible, he's fatigued, but he could still play that
piano and he reaches back to the old, old pianist from way, way back, the
traditions out of which he had come, and puts everything he has into the song
almost as if he knows itâs his last, his last hurrah.
GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley, itâs been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. KELLEY: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelleyâs new biography of Monk, called âThelonious Monk: The
Life and Times of an American Original.â And here is that 1971 recording, âBlue
(Soundbite of song, "Blue Sphere")
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Love At First Listen: 'The Jazz Baroness'
TERRY GROSS, host:
(Soundbite of music, "Pannonica")
GROSS: During the last few years of Thelonious Monkâs life, when he had too
many physical and mental elements for his wife to handle, he moved in with the
baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the woman Monkâs biographer describes as
Monkâs patron saint and friend. She helped Monk financially and saw him through
many crises. He was just one of many jazz musicians she befriended and helped.
The Monk composition weâre listening to now, âPannonica,â is one of many pieces
jazz composers dedicated to her.
The baroness was part of the Rothschild family. Now, her great grand niece,
Hannah Rothschild, has made a documentary called âThe Jazz baroness.â You can
see it on HBO2 this month. Itâs also on, On Demand through December 20th.
Hannah Rothschild makes documentaries about the arts for the BBC. Here is a
clip from the film featuring Thelonious Monk Jr. talking about the baroness.
(Soundbite of documentary, âThe Jazz Baronessâ)
Mr. THELONIOUS MONK JR. (Jazz Drummer, Composer): She believed he was genius
the first day she heard him play. And she never wavered from that - one iota.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. MONK Jr.: But she was there when the critics didnât get it, and half the
musicians didnât get it. But she got it. And I think that that was very
important to her and I think that was very, very important to him too. He loved
her for that.
GROSS: Hannah Rothschild, welcome to FRESH AIR. Could you do like a roll call
of some of the musicians that Nica was friends with that she tried to help in
Ms. HANNAH ROTHSCHILD (Freelance Writer, Filmmaker): Well, there was Sonny
Rollins, there was Bud Powell, there was Chico Hamilton, there was Paul
Jeffreys(ph), there was Thelonious Monk, there was Charlie Parker, there was
Charlie Rouse, there was Art Blakey, there was Miles Davis. I need the book in
front of me because there was about 400 of them.
GROSS: Here was this baroness who is born into the Rothschild family, who is
befriending jazz musicians and helping them as a patron as well.
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Thatâs right.
GROSS: And it must have been so interesting to be her and to be in this totally
different world that the world that she was raised in. And it must have also
been really interesting for the jazz musicians to have a baroness who was a
friend, you know.
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Well, you know, I think â and that's one of the nice things
about talking to those of her friends was that their sense of wonder, if you
like, what they still retained. I mean, there is fantastic stories about - one,
Chico Hamilton, for example, who is a wonderful drummer, said that he
remembered the first time he saw her she was trying to load Slam Stewart's
double bass on to the roof of her Bentley. Another musician told a great story
about, you know, her deciding she was going to drive from right uptown to right
down to the Village without stopping at a red light. I mean, they still love
the idea of this flamboyant woman, who didnât really give it damn, taking
interest in them. And for her you see I think that she was, you know, the
Rothschild family â they're not a traditional upper class aristocratic family
by any means. I mean, theyâre Jewish by origin. So, therefore they were
slightly outside society. They â her great aunt and her aunts and some of her
uncles perished in the Holocaust. So, she was never going to behave like you,
kind of, you know, communal garden English toff, if you like. I donât know if
that translates over there, but - and they gave her a life as much as, you
know, she tried to help them. You have to understand that they also gave her
this extraordinary gift of their music and their friendship.
GROSS: Whatâs one of your favorite stories about her and how she helped jazz
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: She first heard a Monk record in 1951. And she heard "Round
Midnight." And it was a powerful enough emotional experience for her to inspire
her to move to New York and try and find the man who made the music. At that
time, Monk was actually off the scene. He had lost his cabaret card and the
right to play. She heard that he was playing in Paris in 1954. So she flew,
rather ironically, from New York to Paris to hear him and she was introduced
there by a mutual friend, Mary Lou Williams. She was so absolutely besotted and
crazy about his music that the next thing she did was to call London and she
booked this place called the Royal Albert Hall.
Now the Royal Albert Hall, for those of who donât know it, perhaps in America,
holds 5,544 people, okay. So itâs a big concert hall. So, she booked it for
five Sundays in a row and she told Monk, you know, Iâve booked the biggest
concert hall in London at that time, you know, for you to play in and he was,
of course, delighted. But being Nica, and not being the most of practical of
people, she forgot to ask whether he needed a permit or not. And indeed he did.
So, she was left with the Albert Hall and no one to put in it for five Sundays
in a row. But itâs a story she tells against herself, which in - and it sums up
what Nica's like: impulsive, not fantastically practical, completely passionate
about the music, you know, wanting everybody to share in her enthusiasm for
this great guy.
GROSS: Nica reinvented herself in New York when she left her family. She was
separated from her husband, right? She was divorced before she moved to New
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: No, she got divorced after she arrived in New York. They
separated when she came to New York.
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: But she never - I think itâs very important â very, very
important to say this - is that she never left her children. I mean, she did
indeed leave her marriage in 1951, but she never left her children. And her
elder daughter, Yanka(ph) lived with her, first in various different hotels
they lived it, and then later in Weehawken with Yanka's son Stephen(ph). And
the other children also lived with her off and on at various times. So, itâs
very different I think to say that she deserted her whole family. She left her
husband, yes, thatâs indisputable, but she didnât leave her children.
GROSS: Robin D.G. Kelley, who just wrote a biography of Thelonious Monk told us
some stories about Monkâs relationship with Nica. Can you talk a little bit
about Nicaâs relationship with Charlie Parker and what youâve learned about how
they became friends?
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Yes, well she would go and see Parker play at Birdland or on
52nd Street. And Nica saw a completely different side of Parker. She saw the
lonely bird. She saw the man whose child had died. She saw the man whose
relationships had broken up. She saw the man who had nowhere to live. She saw
the person whose life was ravaged by his addictions. So, she felt, I think,
rather protective about Parker. When he knocked on her door that fatal night in
1955 when she was at the Stanhope, although it was a segregated hotel and black
people werenât allowed in there expect through the servants' entrance, or the
service entrance, I think you say in America. She had no hesitation but to take
him in. And she immediately called her physician and he came around. And Parker
was supposed to be playing in Boston, but he wasnât well enough. But, you know,
she saw another side of Parker and she wanted to help him. I mean, I think that
she did try and get him into hospital by all accounts. But he didnât want to
GROSS: And this is how he ended up dying in herâ¦
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Yeah, and he dies there of, you know, while - famously while
watching "The Tommy Dorsey Show,â a juggling show on telly. He laughed, choked
and then died. But whatâs nice about that story is that I think that again itâs
quite typical of Nica to look for the good in people. So that, you know, while
other people saw Parker as someone who, you know, was a junkie who, you know,
ripped off whoever he could in order to get drugs, which is what junkies have
to do, she looked beyond that.
GROSS: Did Nica ever tell you what it was about "Round Midnight" that made her
so passionate about it?
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: No, and, you know, it's one â you know, sometimes you think, oh
God, if only I could have another hour or two somebody. Itâs one of the
questions I would ask her. I would say, what on Earth was it? However, a lost
interview did turn up and she said that - she described listening to it. She
said she played it 20 times in a row. And she said that she cried while
listening to it. And I suppose in a way that says everything, doesnât it? You
know, I think it was quite literally like a spell being cast on someone.
GROSS: Hannah Rothschild, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. ROTHSCHILD: Thank you. Itâs been a great pleasure.
GROSS: Hannah Rothschildâs documentary about her great aunt called, âThe Jazz
Baroness.â Itâs on HBO2 and On Demand this month.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And
you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. Iâm Terry Gross.
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