The Baroness of Jazz

Barry Singer – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
IF the mysterious Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter is at all remembered today, it is for her proximity to the deaths of two legendary jazz musicians. In 1955 Charlie Parker died on a sofa in her Fifth Avenue home; 27 years later Thelonious Monk died after secluding himself for years in her New Jersey house.
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Courtesy of Abrams Image/Harry N. Abrams
Thelonious Monk was among the many jazz musicians befriended (and photographed) by Pannonica de Koenigswarter, right.
Both deaths made the baroness an immediate target of tabloid headlines and a long-term subject for scurrilous gossip. Almost no one, though, beyond the insular jazz world, could possibly know her whole story: how, until her death in 1988, she championed jazz as both a friend and a generous, if rather unlikely, benefactor.
A Rothschild heiress, she offered her home to countless jazzmen as a place to work and even live, while quietly paying their bills when they couldn’t find work. She chauffeured them to gigs around New York, toured with them as a kind of racial chaperon, and was even known to confront anyone she felt was taking advantage of her friends because they were black.
“I always likened her to the great royal patrons of Mozart or Wagner’s day,” the saxophonist Sonny Rollins said in a telephone interview. “Yet she never put the spotlight on herself. I try not to talk publicly about people I knew in jazz. But I have to say something about the baroness. She really loved our music.”
The baroness first materialized in New York jazz clubs in the early 1950s like some film noir siren, right down to the raven hair and long cigarette holder. She seduced the music’s greatest figures with her friendship, the revolutionists of the bebop era: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and many others. Her illustrious family has long refused to discuss her. But now a new book, “Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats” (Abrams Image), offers a window into her personal life, providing details even her jazz intimates were probably unaware of…
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