Yasiin Bey to Play Jazz Legend Thelonious Monk in New Biopic

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mos-def-yasiin-bey-thelonious-monk - Credit: Courtesy; AP
mos-def-yasiin-bey-thelonious-monk - Credit: Courtesy; AP

Years ago, screenwriter-producer Peter Lord Moreland watched Straight No Chaser, the landmark 1988 documentary on bebop pianist-composer Thelonious Monk. Thus began a near-obsessive fascination with the jazz legend that “was already triggered by one of my favorite jazz ballads of all time: ‘Round Midnight.’”

As his career progressed, Lord Moreland began researching the musician and started on a working script to document his life and career. “My entire life, I have been an artist, a person, and a thinker who seems to have an alternative view of creating, hearing, and seeing the world,” he tells Rolling Stone. “There’s no greater personification of that than Thelonious.”

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Now, Jupiter Rising Film, the production company headed by Lord Moreland and Alberto Marzan, are set to begin production next summer on Thelonious, a biopic starring Yasiin Bey (f.k.a. Mos Def) in the title role. The film, the producers note, will center around “his struggles for musical success, mental illness, and the spiritual love triangle between his wife, Nellie, and one of the world’s richest women, Nica Rothschild.”

“A leader.A Lord.A shape in space.A man from a community of devotion who lives a simple life distant from society,” Bey says of the musician in an emailed statement to Rolling Stone. “The adjectives.can never be nouns.Love.is a verb.The Future has already happened.And Forever.is a current event.Jupiter and team.”

“It’s the story that today’s world needs,” Marzan says. “This is not a simple story about a black jazz pianist that gets fame, does drugs, and dies. They will understand the genius Thelonious was and how the world changed after him for good.”

Marzan became a Monk fan in his early twenties, hanging out at revered New York jazz club the Blue Note. “It hit me like a tidal wave,” he says. “At first, it was like, ‘Hmm, what is this?’ That’s all it took for me to realize this Thelonious guy was in something completely different from the others. What sounded untrained and different stirred up something in me that I still identify with today. I see him as a spiritual institution.”

But finding an actor able to portray the eccentric musician would be one of the paramount decisions for the filmmakers. One of the film’s producers mentioned Bey at a development meeting. “When his name was brought up, there was a silence that I will never forget,” Marzan says. “We all envisioned him. This needed to be somebody that understood Thelonious’ music on an intimate level. It needed to be someone who understood the life and challenges of being a musician; a black man in this universe. Yasiin has Thelonious’ morals and focus on what matters.

“Yasiin lives his life with a vibe not easily found in Hollywood, because he’s not Hollywood, point blank,” Marzan adds. “His values and moral compass are intentional and focused on what really matters. Everyone who knows his body of work has seen him boldly transform himself from his music to the Broadway stage, the silver screen and beyond. When he looked at me and said, ‘I am Thelonious,’ I knew we had found him.”

“The long journey to reach the spiritual place, vibration, and sensibilities of Monk — that it would take for just about any other actor we could think of to portray him — is not necessary for him,” Lord Moreland says of the rapper-actor, who portrayed Chuck Berry in Cadillac Records and earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for 2004’s Something the Lord Made. “He’s already there. His essence is in ‘that place.’”

Monk’s influence remains monumental in the jazz world and beyond; he’s one of the most recorded composers of the genre, and songs like “Round Midnight,” “Straight, No Chaser,” “Blue Monk,” “Ruby, My Dear” and “Monk’s Dream” have long been jazz standards. In 1982, he was hospitalized after suffering a stroke and died two weeks later at the age of 64. Dubbed a “founding father by all segments of the jazz community from bop to the current avant-garde” by the Washington Post, the musician had been mostly inactive in the years before his death due to health issues, but artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker were all influenced by his work.

Like Bey, Monk was defined as a creative eccentric who valued individualism and defied musical expectations. “Technically, Mr. Monk played incorrectly, with his fingers held parallel to the keyboard,” the Washington Post noted in its obituary of the musician. “His use of unusual intervals, dissonance, and rhythmic displacement, coupled with a reputation for sardonic eccentricity, kept him in comparative obscurity until the early 1950s and the flowering of the hard bop movement.”

In the late 1950s, a string of acclaimed albums, including Brilliant Corners, Criss Cross, and Thelonious in Action, began to cement his reputation as a singular visionary that would carry into the 1960s and beyond.

“When you learn one of Monk’s pieces, you can’t just learn the melody and chord symbols,” John Coltrane, who performed in a quartet led by Monk, once said. “You have to learn the inner voicings and rhythms exactly. Everything is so carefully related; his works are jazz compositions in the sense that relatively few jazz ‘originals’ are.”

For Lord Moreland, the goal of the film and bringing Monk’s story to life is “authenticity.” “I hope that viewers will see a truly three-dimensional view of the man, his music and his world,” he says.

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