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A gift from a godmother of jazz

Pannonica with Charlie Mingus, who said he ''wouldn't mind having enough money to pay my bills with.'' Pannonica with Charlie Mingus, who said he ''wouldn't mind having enough money to pay my bills with.'' (''Three Wishes'')
By Mark Feeney
January 18, 2009
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THREE WISHES:
An Intimate Look at Jazz Giants

Compiled and photographed by
Pannonica de Koenigswarter
Abrams Image, 317 pp.,
illustrated, paperback, $19.95

If jazz were Oz, Pannonica de Koenigswarter (1913-88) would be its Glinda the Good. She was the Jazz Baroness, a Rothschild heiress who was drawn to America after World War II by her love of the music. One look at the back-endpapers photograph of "Three Wishes," which shows her joyfully gazing at the pianist Teddy Wilson, and it's not hard to see why she crossed the ocean.

Pannonica was a magical figure, gliding through Manhattan in a silver Bentley as she made the rounds from club to club. Wherever she lived became an open-door jazz salon. It was in her New York apartment that Charlie Parker died in 1952. Thirty years later, Thelonious Monk died in her Weehawken, N.J., house. Monk dubbed it the Cathouse, even more for the musicians who flocked there than the 122 felines Pannonica owned.

Monk, who lived there during his final, near-catatonic decade, wrote what may be his most beautiful tune, "Pannonica," in tribute to her. Numerous other musicians named songs for her: Horace Silver's "Nica's Dream," Gigi Gryce's "Nica's Tempo," Sonny Clark's "Nica," and so on.

How could jazz musicians not feel gratitude toward Pannonica? She was the perfect hostess, as well as the ultimate fan, asking only one thing of her guests: that they tell her their three wishes in life. Some 300 musicians complied.

Those answers, along with more than 200 candid photographs - most of them taken by Pannonica - make up "Three Wishes." It may be as close to a jazz family album as we'll ever see. It has the same sense of spontaneity and casualness, affection and unexpectedness, found in a family album. How unexpected? We see Monk playing ping-pong. Hank Mobley nods off at a lunch counter. Sonny Rollins wears a cowboy hat. Max Roach switches from drums to tickle the Cathouse ivories.

Then there's the matter of those three wishes. They tend to center on four concerns. They are, in order of frequency, money (more), music (better), family (healthier, happier), and sex (more and better). There are also variations on those themes. Al Haig, speaking by telephone, told the baroness, "Coitus! Hurry over to the Algonquin and I'll tell you what two and three are."

But they aren't limited to just those categories. "To be white!" Miles Davis said. Zoot Sims sought both "peace of mind" and "piece of ground." Perhaps he would have been better off dueting with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis instead of Al Cohn. Jaws wanted to be a booking agent, go into politics, and enter into real estate. Percy Heath was more travel agent than realtor. He wanted to go to another planet, "find something to do when I get there," and "know how to get back."

More than anything else, perhaps, getting back is what "Three Wishes" is about: getting back to a time when jazz was its own milieu, self-contained yet still of interest to a considerable portion of the general public. No longer mainstream (what milieu is?) but not a coterie either. It's a world where most of its inhabitants know and admire the others, and the outside world pays at least some attention, too. The thing about "Three Wishes" is how it grants a wish itself: bringing back that world, and with such vividness and love.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THREE WISHES: An Intimate Look at Jazz Giants

Compiled and photographed by

Pannonica de Koenigswarter

Abrams Image, 317 pp.,

illustrated, paperback, $19.95

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