Certain select individuals actually do live lives that only Hollywood could have invented. Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Nica to her many friends, was a rich, aristocratic French émigrée who embodied both cultured sophistication and street-level bohemianism. Whether holding court from her palatial apartment or frequenting Manhattan’s nightspots with her Bentley parked outside, this Rothschild heiress became the jazz musician’s best friend, opening her home and pocketbook to the artists she passionately admired. Charlie Parker is said to have died in her living room; Thelonious Monk lived his last years as her guest; and the list of significant musicians who enjoyed her hospitality is innumerable. (Koenigswarter, who died in 1988, is immortalized in nearly two dozen titles of original jazz pieces composed by grateful pals.) This romantic figure — she and her former husband were active members of the French Resistance to boot — was also skilled at taking off-the-cuff Polaroid shots, and, starting in 1961, she engaged in the charming habit of chronicling her acquaintances’ three main wishes. The results can be found in Three Wishes, one of the most revealing portraits of the jazz life to date. Taken at home or in clubs, Nica’s photographs posses a soulful spontaneity in keeping with the music itself, catching a deeply personal view of musicians whose reverential stature can often obscure their quotidian humanity. As for the wishes, some are prosaic, some poetic and philosophical — all give us special insight into the person behind the instrument. A typical beauty is attributed to saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who compresses his dreams in terms of his idol, Charlie Parker: “I wish I had Bird’s heart and technique. But who needs the technique? If I had Bird’s heart that would be enough.”
About the Author
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.