Pannonica – Thelonius Monk

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I stumbled upon Thelonius Monk’s “Pannonica” leafing through an old collection of jazz standards about a year ago. I slowly sight-read through the 32-bar tune, finding the changes intriguing but mysterious, the often chromatic melody fluidly elegant. On paper, the composition is something of a conundrum; in the air, it is seriously playful. I was hooked immediately… but what did that strange title mean? Googling it revealed that ‘Pannonica’ – or ‘Nica’ for short – referred to the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild (1913-1988). She was a well-known jazz connoisseur, and the musicians she supported and promoted seemed genuinely to respect her. She gained some notoriety when Charlie Parker died of an overdose at her house in 1955, an incident depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film Bird (which I recommend). Monk lived at her house from 1970 until his death in 1982.

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Nica and Monk in 1964, at the Five Spot in New York. Photo by Ben Martin/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

For months I struggled to find a way of soloing gracefully through those seemingly disjointed changes, not to mention ways of comping that did the tune at least minimal justice on guitar. Of course I listened to Monk’s solo piano rendition, and realized instantly that trying to emulate that masterpiece would be hopeless. So here’s the best I could come up with, given limited time and resources-

Hannah Rothschild, Nica’s great-niece, recently wrote her biography (thanks for the tip, Berry). Here’s The Guardian’s review. It follows by a couple of years David Kastin’s well-regarded biography. I’ll probably read one of them eventually. But for now I think I’ll just continue to relate to her through Monk’s masterful musical portrait – he knew his subject so very well.

2 thoughts on “Pannonica – Thelonius Monk

  1. Dude. So I’ve been spending my evening perusing through a recently acquired homeowner’s insurance policy of mine — 58 pages of necessitated sludge that makes me happy I never went to law school — and had decided to put on some Monk to create the illusion that reading between the lines of where my money is spent is actually a GOOD, worthwhile thing to do.
    According to iTunes, it’s been almost 3 years since Brilliant Corners has reached my computer speakers; once Pannonica hit the atmosphere, I was immediately drawn deep into the same ecstasy that it had last graced me with. Wondering for the first time what the hell Pannonica actually meant, I justified some procrastination from my reading material and hit Google…. and 20 minutes later, here I am, having just bookmarked this page, so I can later hit the woodshed and obtain the muscle memory necessary to bring Pannonica into existence, without iTunes, with only my guitar.
    And for that, I do indeed have Thelonius Monk to thank, but have you to thank as well. I’m fuckin stoked you shared this with the world here. Keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Matt, thanks for the comment! I am absolutely thrilled that someone found my rendition (and the video accompaniment) useful – although you might be the only person in the universe whose particular interests would have led you here. It is a very unusual tune for a guitarist to even try to play (at least absent a keyboard player).

    Good luck with the woodshedding, and let me know if you have any questions on voicings or the like.

    Monk forever!

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