Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness (Norton) is one of those books that you wouldn’t find credible if it were fiction. It has everything a good story requires. And more. A glamorous baroness from a famous family. She is a pilot, mother to five children and a former fighter in the French resistance. Then she hears jazz music and is entranced: terminally. The music — and the people who make it — will alter the course of he life. She styles herself as a patroness of the arts which, in the case of jazz music at the middle part of the last century also means she becomes a fighter in the rights of racial equality.
Kathleen Annie Pannonica (“Nica”) Rothschild de Koenigswarter’s life of privilege was challenged when Charlie Parker was found dead in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel. When Nica’s husband, the Baron de Koenigswarter, got wind of the scandal, he asked for a divorce and all of this seemed only to underline what popular society felt about jazz music at the time:
From the moment jazz first infiltrated mainstream popular culture, it was perceived as a serious threat not only to the prevailing social order but to the integrity of Western culture itself…. Of course, it was precisely such sentiments — along with the music’s intoxicating rhythms — that captivated young people on both sides of the Atlantic.
Music historian and educator David Kastin (I Hear America Singing) brings a deep knowledge of music and a storyteller’s passion for his tale to Nica’s Dream. “Whether frozen in Weegee’s tabloid flash,” Kastin begins, “or shrouded in the murky chiaroscuro of the era’s low-budget movies, New York in the 1950’s is a city in black and white.” And we’re entranced.
This is not only the biography of a deeply interesting woman but in many ways, it’s the story of the birth of bebop and the maturation of cool. A fantastic story and a great book. ◊
David Middleton is art director of January Magazine as well as editor of the art and culture section.