A member of the English branch of the Rothschild family, Pannonica de Koenigswarter arrived in New York in the early 1950s, took a suite at the Stanhope Hotel, bought a silver Rolls-Royce, and quickly became a fixture in the jazz clubs that lined 52nd Street. A few years later, when an ailing Charlie Parker died in her living room, the city’s tabloids splashed the story across their front pages (“Bop King Dies in Heiress’s Flat”), and the legend of the “Jazz Baroness” was launched.
But as we learn from the introduction to the moving and elegantly produced scrapbook Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats by Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Bird was only one of the musical legends who were the beneficiaries of her unstinting generosity and friendship. For four decades—until her death in 1988 at the age of 74—”Nica” (a/k/a “the Baroness”) was a revered figure in New York’s jazz community. Over the years, at least 20 compositions were written in her honor (including the Horace Silver standard “Nica’s Dream” and Thelonious Monk’s haunting ballad “Pannonica”).
It turns out that she was also a talented photographer. Beginning in the late 1950s, Nica documented the jazz scene in hundreds of intimate and revealing Polaroid pictures taken in New York nightclubs and at the nonstop jam sessions she hosted in her feline-filled Weehawken pad, known to the hipnoscenti as the “Cat House.” Late in her life, she put together a compendium of her photos—along with the “three wishes” she’d collected from 300 jazz musicians—in a couple of leather-bound journals.
The astonishing array of hopes and dreams Nica elicited (from the likes of John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, and Louis Armstrong) range from the sublime to the ridiculous, as altruistic wishes for universal peace bump up against grandiose fantasies of luxury and sexual potency. Yet along with such extravagant aspirations, a more poignant theme emerges: the desire, expressed by some of America’s greatest artists, to be able to pursue their artistic vision while achieving a modicum of recognition and respect. Then there’s Miles Davis’s sole wish: “To be white!”
When Nica pitched the project to a couple of publishers, she was told there was no market for the book. A couple of years ago, however, her granddaughter, Nadine de Koenigswarter, rescued the material, and it appears here much as Nica had envisioned it—along with Nadine’s affectionate introduction and a preface by the jazz critic Gary Giddins (which includes a wry account of his own close encounter with the baroness).
Classic images by icons of jazz photography such as William Gottlieb and Lee Tanner—with their moody ambience and backlit curls of cigarette smoke—evoke the glamorous glossies of Hollywood’s heyday. Nica’s photos share a more modernist “snapshot” aesthetic with such contemporary photographers as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, who have also documented the nighttime netherworld of marginalized subcultures (though she spares their veneer of chic nihilism).
Ultimately, however, the book is more like some fabulous family photo album, which, like all such artifacts, also functions as a kind of time machine. Flipping through these pages, we are transported back to a golden age of jazz where we’re greeted by a couple of generations of the music’s masters, who (as they did for Nica) make us feel right at home.
An exhibition of original prints from Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats will be on view, beginning October 31, at Hermès, 691 Madison Avenue