New “Pannonica Piano” acquisition played by Thelonious Monk, other jazz greats

Last fall, curator for United States / Canada Rich Walter acquired noted jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s Steinway M piano, an instrument linked to the heart of New York’s jazz scene beginning in the mid-1950s. The piano is indelibly associated with jazz great Thelonious Monk, who selected the piano from the Steinway showroom and spent years playing and composing on it. Now, the instrument is part of MIM’s permanent collection and a highlight in the expanding Jazz exhibit in the United States / Canada Gallery.

Thelonious Monk Image Image credit: William P. Gottlieb

Jazz great Thelonious Monk
Image credit: William P. Gottlieb

Monk is not the only legendary musician connected to the “Pannonica Piano.” The piano lived in de Koenigswarter’s home in Weehawken, New Jersey, which overlooked the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline and which she opened to many of the era’s notable jazz musicians, including Monk, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, and Barry Harris, as a place to play and sometimes live. Classic jazz songs such as Monk’s “Pannonica” and Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” were inspired by de Koenigswarter, who often supported jazz musicians financially.

There are intimate hints of the piano’s continued use over many decades—scratches, wine stains, and chipped keys can be seen on the piano itself, and cigarette burns pockmark the piano’s bench. MIM conservator Rodrigo Correa-Salas and piano technician John Gottschalk performed some minor maintenance on the piano when it arrived at MIM, but they were careful to preserve its character and history. It is still in solid structural and playable condition, and it still has a unique musical voice.

Because modern musicians can offer new context for treasured instruments, MIM is proud to offer opportunities for artists to make connections with renowned objects from the museum’s collection. When brilliant jazz pianist and Monk devotee Jason Moran visited the MIM Music Theater for a performance in June, MIM invited him to play the “Pannonica Piano” during his concert.

“Only at MIM can we unite some of the most extraordinary artists with histories that only they can exemplify,” says MIM Music Theater artistic director Andrew Walesch. “What better person to perform on Pannonica’s piano than Jason Moran, who is one of the greatest living interpreters of Monk’s music?”

Jason Moran Image

Pianist Jason Moran plays the “Pannonica Piano” at the MIM Music Theater.

To ensure that the piano was in performance condition, another exceptional jazz musician, Billy Childs, generously tested the piano in MIM’s Conservation Lab while he was at MIM for his own performance at the MIM Music Theater. Childs confirmed that the piano responded to energetic playing once again.

During his concert, Moran expressed how significant the opportunity to play the “Pannonica Piano” was.

“These instruments hold a lot of history,” Moran said. “It’s very important that parts of history don’t stay behind a case.”

A Piece of Jazz History Finds a New Home at MIM Image

The “Pannonica Piano” bears evidence of significant use, including cigarette burns on its bench.
Gift of the Robert J. Ulrich and Diane Sillik Fund

The Jazz exhibit will continue undergoing revisions throughout the fall. Other instruments played by notable jazz artists will join the “Pannonica Piano,” including Gerry Mulligan’s Conn baritone saxophone, Eric Dolphy’s Selmer Super Balanced Action alto saxophone, Lionel Hampton’s custom Deagan “King George” vibraharp, and Dizzy Gillespie’s Martin Committee trumpet, which features the trumpeter’s signature upturned bell.