THE BLOG
11/24/2009 06:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jazz Baroness on HBO/ Burn the Floor on Broadway

Herbie Hancock remembers Pannonica, the Rothschild heir who so loved American jazz that she abandoned an aristocratic European life of castles where royalty dined, to live in New York, surrounded by cats (felines and players), and make her rounds from club to club in pursuit of the music. Driving her Bentley, she chauffeured Hancock and Barry Harris from the Five Spot to midtown one night without stopping for a single light, this jazz legend told me at a premiere screening of a documentary film about her at HBO last Thursday. The film will air on HBO on November 25.

In the jazz world Pannonica is herself legend: Charlie Parker died in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel. Friends with Thelonius Monk, she housed the piano genius for the last decade of his life until his death in 1982, while he was married to Nelly to whom he was devoted.

Famous in this coterie, for her relatives she is an obscure branch on a family tree-that is until Hannah Rothschild, Pannonica's London-based grand-niece, a documentarian for the BBC, began to investigate. Filled with the music she loved, interviews with Sonny Rollins, Clint Eastwood, Thelonius Monk, Jr. who all testify to Pannonica's essential support of the musicians in matters from health care to groceries, and with Helen Mirren reading her words, this film illuminates Pannonica's unusual choices to take on the role of jazz "angel."

The film is especially good as it limns the story of the filmmaker hoping to glimpse a piece of her own family history. Having in the '70's cut my teeth as a journalist covering jazz for The Village Voice and the now defunct Soho Weekly News, I was pleased to talk to Hannah Rothschild, happy that Nica will receive her due in this musically rich documentary.

Q: Why was it important for you to tell this story?

HR: I had to think about whether or not I was making a film about someone I would find interesting even if I had not been related. The answer was yes.

Q: What do her children think of the film?

Originally her children were keen on it. They got cold feet when they realized they wouldn't have final control. That would ultimately rest with the person who paid for it. The BBC. They got nervous. Now that the film is made, I don't know. I hope they like it. I am sad it is not something we could have done together.

Q: What about the rest of the Rothschilds?

The others did not know very much about what she had done, for example, the missions she had flown in Africa during World War II. They didn't understand her. And in America: Why was she going to prison? Saying the drugs were hers? Living this strange dissolute life? She was in a different world and had slipped out of the family's consciousness.

Q: Take me through the stages of how you got this film made.

HR: I have made films for the BBC since I graduated from Oxford. This one took 9 years. In the early '90's, I interviewed Nica's sister Miriam, doing the filming myself. All music is pre-recorded, some from BBC archive. I was lucky to have footage: Michael Blackwood and Christian filmed Monk in 1968, around the Five Spot and different places.

I cold called Bruce Ricker. I saw his name on Straight No Chaser, [an excellent Monk documentary he made with Charlotte Zwerin]. Ricker [co-producer on Jazz Baroness] found an old interview. I suddenly had her voice on the tape recorder. He was helpful in getting Helen Mirren. Bruce called her up. She said yes. Then, I had the absolutely terrifying experience of directing Helen Mirren.

Q: Your film features interviews with jazz greats and aficionados. How did you make your choices?

HR: The people I asked to be in the film were Nica's friends. For example, Clint Eastwood got in touch with her when he made Bird, the Charlie Parker movie. He met with her and some of her children at the bar at the Stanhope, Nica's, named after her. She helped him with research. She saw Clint's film before she died; someone asked, what did you think? She replied, "I looked like a constipated horse."

Q: Did anything about Nica surprise you?

HR: It takes something to completely walk away from your life, from what is familiar. I don't know many people who've done that. I couldn't. Then you realize that she created another version of her life. She left a comfortable life in Europe and became a hausfrau in Weehawken. She just switched locations. The musicians presented a different form of family. Monk was a nightmare to live with. According to the new biography by Robert Kelly, Nelly was having their 4th child and Monk was off in a crack den. He didn't go to his mom's funeral. He turned up for part of the wake. A wonderful man, much loved by his kids, he was not easy. It would be difficult not to be bewitched by Monk's story. He was a great genius. She was there to facilitate, his patron. Nica left the Jewish aristocracy and joined the jazzocracy.

Q: What is it like to be a Rothschild?

We are pretty normal now. When Nica was born they were the wealthiest family in Europe. Prime Ministers would come to see them. The guest book was filled with shahs and presidents. Today the family has the vestige of great inheritance without any real power. I am proud that my brother and father are quite successful. Obama would be welcome.

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Jazz or improv is one part of the international dance style featured in Burn the Floor, the thrilling show choreographed by Jason Gilkison at the Longacre Theater. An ensemble of 24, ballroom competition winners that have been touring since 1999, from Latvia, Russia, Italy, Latin America, Australia, as well as the U.S. let their passions rip in one of the most exhilarating, athletic and breath-taking events I've ever seen on Broadway. Beginning with the cha cha, and moving through the Viennese waltz, foxtrot, rumba, swing, the lindy, and tangoes, this non-stop sexy revue dazzles for its pace, 4-piece band (although some of the music is recorded), and vocalists. The set is a club's dancefloor with a disco ball overhead casting its glitzy, syncopated sheen. From number to number, favorites with fringes aswirl, sequins, marabou, and spandex emerge, and fade, to be replaced by new favorites. Peta Murgatroyd, a lithe blond seemed to take the floor most prominently, as in a sequence with six male partners, their pecs bare. For the finale, to the tunes of "Proud Mary" and "Turn the Beat Around," performers shimmied into the aisle, pelvises gyrating. Dancing hard, sweat flying, they looked like they could go forever.
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