If I told you I'd just seen a documentary made by the descendant of a glamorous English heiress, you might wonder if it was some kind of vanity project about fine china and silverware and the upper clahsses. The Jazz Baroness indeed depicts sundry accoutrements of the landed gentry, but it is more than that: it tells the story of an unlikely friendship between the titular baroness and one of the great figures in jazz music, Thelonious Monk.
Hannah Rotshchild produced, wrote, and directed The Jazz Baroness, which premieres on HBO on November 25. Like 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, the picture is framed as a quest, but in this case it is not the quest of a record collector; Rothschild is the great-niece of Pannonica de Koenigswarter (nee Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild), which makes hers no less than a quest for family and identity. She follows the breadcrumbs left behind by her aunt, who she met for the first time only a few years before the Baroness's death in 1988. These breadcrumbs happen to lead her to Thelonious Monk, who met the Baroness in 1954.
Their backgrounds could not have been more different: he grew up in rural North Carolina, she was raised on banquets hosting the great leaders of Europe. But from their first meeting grew an intimate friendship that lasted till Monk's death 28 years later (Monk penned one of his most lovely ballads, "Pannonica," for her). The documentary is very much about class and race; and, although it may be a cliche, about how music can profoundly bridge the gap between the differences that society builds between people – differences which in the end are arbitrary. Rothschild (whose words are read by Hellen Mirren) left behind a life of English manorial comfort in order to live a life among the be-bop elite in New York City. If the end result of the director's quest for identity is only hinted at, it is clear that her great-aunt, though very far from home, found herself indeed.
Hannah Rothschild admits at the start that she did not enter this project a jazz expert; and at the end, she admits she still isn't. But the sensitive use of the music, and respect for the musicians she speaks with (Sonny Rollins, Curtis Fuller, and Quincy Jones among them) belies her modesty. Her film is no replacement for Charlotte Zwerin's film Straight, No Chaser, but it is a fine companion piece.
I was in a Starbucks recently and heard Thelonious Monk's solo piano version of "Ruby, My Dear," one of the great jazz ballads. That I was not surprised to hear it in Starbucks says something about how far jazz music has come (and, well, a lot about marketing, but that's another story) — from its perception as a strange and forbidding art form, to what someone searching for a venti soy caramel machiatto might consider pleasant background music. But if some pilgrim on their caffeinated quest might pause long enough to listen, and find something in the music that resonates with them, then it would seem that Thelonious Monk hasn't lost his touch with the gentry. Sweet.
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