The Jazz Baroness

Issues of black and white are precisely what pic is about.

With:
Voice of Nica - Helen Mirren Young Nica - Clemency Brookfield

The roguish charms of the black sheep are proportionate to the prominence of its family, so “The Jazz Baroness” would seem to be a few legs up already — and issues of black and white are precisely what it’s about. Profiling her notorious great-aunt and her unlikely relationship with jazz genius Thelonious Monk, helmer Hannah Rothschild also tackles her whole legendary banking family, ultimately biting off too much for one movie. But the story is a fascinating one, and Monk a source of endless musical joy. TV is assured; theatrical seems less likely.Pannonica de Koenigswarter, nee Rothschild — the namesake of one of Monk’s most famous and beautiful pieces (“Pannonica”) — grew up amid opulence as a member of one of Europe’s wealthiest families: She was educated in Paris and was the granddaughter of Britain’s first Jewish MP. Monk was, as critic Stanley Crouch puts it, “a country Negro,” born in North Carolina and raised in New York, his musical genius leading him into a life of art and poverty. But when Rothschild heard Monk’s “Round Midnight” while in New York, she listened to it 20 more times and then canceled her trip back home. They eventually met and struck up a friendship; she became a patron of jazz, and Monk spent the last 10 years of his life living in her house across the Hudson in New Jersey.

Much of what helmer Rothschild says about Monk’s life has already been said in Charlotte Zwerin’s exceptional “Straight No Chaser” (1988). Rothschild seems more interested in her great-aunt’s life (whether the viewer will be is another issue) and what motivated Nica’s passion for jazz, her devotion to its practitioners and her willingness to be scorned for her friendships with black men (she and her times were not in synch). When Charlie Parker died in her apartment at the Stanhope hotel in 1955, the tabloids vilified her.

The particular closeness between Pannonica and Monk is the subject at hand, though, and besides a love of jazz, they also share a heritage of mental illness. Nica’s father committed suicide; Monk’s father spent the last two decades of his life in an asylum. Monk himself was beset by periods of instability and depression, and despite the film’s insistence that the two did not have a consummated love affair, Monk’s survival depended very much on Nica.

Some of the helmer’s musings in voiceover seem forced, or random. “The Jazz Baroness” would have provided a more coherent account of a truly unusual romance had Helen Mirren — who assumes Pannonica’s identity as she reads from the jazz patron’s letters — been the only voice we hear along with Monk’s (and, more importantly, his playing).

Production values are good, with a few rare bits of archival Monk.

The Jazz Baroness

Production: A Clandestine Films presentation in association with BBC Storyville. Produced by Hannah Rothschild. Executive producers, Nick Fraser, Anthony Wall. Co-producer, Bruce Ricker. Directed, written by Hannah Rothschild.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), Rothschild; editor, Guy Crossman; sound, Hugh Mitchell-Dawson; assistant producer, Walter Stabb. Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (World Showcase), Toronto, May 7, 2009. Running time: 83 MIN.

With: Voice of Nica - Helen Mirren Young Nica - Clemency BrookfieldWith: T.S. Monk Jr., Sonny Rollins, Jacob Rothschild, Quincy Jones, Chico Hamilton, Archie Shepp.

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