They were, to say the least, an odd couple. A brilliant, but troubled pianist with a yin for bizarre behavior, and a well bred heiress to one of the per-eminent banking fortunes of the world—a Rothschild no less. On top of this, they co-habituated during an era where liaisons between “Negroes” and White women were downright dangerous.
Moroccan cartoonist Youssef Daoudi’s latest graphic novel takes us back to the 1940s and the birth of bebop, a complicated, rapid tempo style of jazz dramatically different from anything that came before it. At its center were Thelonius Monk and his benefactor, Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a legitimate highborn baroness who used her resources to champion the largely African American practitioners of this new and controversial music.
Monk himself was an odd duck. During performances he would regularly step away from the keyboard and go into a weird, spastic, trance like dance while his peers took extended solos, often for as long as 10 to 15 minutes. His behavior on and off the stage has led some to speculate he was bi-polar (or manic depressive, as it was called back then).
The alcohol and narcotics that was a staple of the nightspots where he practiced his craft aggravated this condition, abetted by amphetamines prescribed by “legitimate” doctors.
Pannonica, or “Nica” for short, was a chain-smoking eccentric who raced between New York jazz clubs in her elegant Bentley convertible. She kept dozens of house cats in a series of high priced apartments, where she held all-star jam sessions into the wee hours of the morning.
Nica’s love for the music and its purveyors endured scandal and derision. The landlords of her opulent digs doubled, and then tripled the rent in a futile effort to evict her. She eventually relocated across the Hudson River to a New Jersey estate, where she continued her hipster revelry, oblivious to newspaper gossip hounds like Walter Winchell.
Throughout it all, she supported these talented outcasts in the same way that the Medici family helped artists and scientists of the Italian Renaissance. In return, more than a dozen songs were composed in her honor, by Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and others (her photographs documenting these relationship were collected in 2008s “Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats,” published by Harry N. Abrams).
Above all, she favored Monk from their 1954 meeting to his death in 1982. Curiously, theirs was not a romantic coupling. Her emotional and financial assistance was accepted and encouraged by his wife, Nellie.
Daoudi, a seasoned visual artist and professor living in France, has depicted their friendship with a series of pen and ink sketches in a limited palette of black and white with gold accents.
His is not a comprehensive portrait. Those desiring an in-depth chronicle of Thelonious Monk may want to check out 2010’s “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” by Robin D.G. Kelley.
“Monk!: Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship behind a Musical Revolution,” retails for $24.99 ($16.99 on Amazon.com).