The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix has acquired a vital piece of jazz history: a Grand Steinway Piano owned by Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.
A musical instrument purchased by a member of the once-powerful Rothschild family might not raise the eyebrow of a casual jazz fan. However, legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk selected the “Pannonica Piano,” as it is known, for de Koenigswarter. He often performed and composed on it, as did many of his contemporaries.
“Her circle included some of the greatest jazz artists of the era,” says Richard D. Walter, Ph.D., a curator at the MIM. “Your imagination runs wild when you think about who’s played on [the piano].”
Fans of Monk’s work may recall that de Koenigswarter wrote the liner notes for his 1963 album Criss-Cross, but her appreciation for jazz and those who performed it goes deeper and as far back as the late 1940s. Occasionally referred to as “The Jazz Baroness,” which is also the name of the 2009 documentary directed by her grand-niece, she would not only frequent New York City jazz clubs but support musicians by loaning them money for rent and groceries or giving them a lift to performances in her Bentley. She was even evicted from her luxurious suite at The Stanhope Hotel after saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker died while watching television in it.
When de Koenigswarter and Monk were charged with marijuana possession in Delaware in 1958, she took criminal responsibility. She spent several nights in jail and was sentenced to three years in prison. (The case was dismissed.) And when Monk stopped performing live, he retired to de Koenigswarter’s home in Weehawken, New Jersey, where he died in 1982. The song “Pannonica,” which appears on reissues of Monk’s Criss-Cross, was composed in tribute to her.
“She was an integral part of his career,” Walter says.
Walter also explains that when the MIM acquired the “Pannonica Piano” in an auction late last year, it had been dormant for some time. The museum performed some minor maintenance, but its character remains, from some wine stains and yellow keys.
It will be ready for an exclusive performance by jazz pianist Jason Moran this Friday, June 2, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at mim.org. If you can’t make the show, the “Pannonica Piano” will be featured in a new jazz exhibit in the museum later this summer.