A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
Errol Garner’s great song “Misty” isn’t played as much anymore as it used to. It was once one of those popular songs that was played every day and night in just about every lounge and piano bar in the world. It seems to me that this “overexposure” is the main reason it’s not played too much anymore.

A lot of jazz musicians stay away from the song for this reason. But I’ve found that the listening public still loves the tune (for those who remember it) and if you play from the heart, people will enjoy it. Besides, it is one of the truly great jazz ballads!

Garner composed the tune in 1954, apparently while on an airplane. Johnny Burke later wrote the famous lyric and the song became a huge hit for the singer Johnny Mathis in 1959.

“Misty” is one of the “must-know” Real Book ballads. You never know when someone will request that you play it!

Recommended videos/recordings:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Johnny Mathis: 16 Most requested Songs

Errol Garner: Errol Garner Plays Misty

Erroll Garner: on Belgian TV (video)

Sarah Vaughan: Gold

Bob Brookmeyer: Bob Brookmeyer and Friends

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
In the early eras of jazz, all the great musicians knew the lyrics to the songs they played. I’d say that this still held true in the bebop period of the 1940s and into the 1950s. Knowing the lyrics was easier then, since these songs was heard everywhere. They were on the radio, on the movie screen, on the Broadway stage, and later, on TV. You’d turn on the television to relax in the evening and see Johnny Mathis singing a song like “Misty,” with a full orchestra. (The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson featured a full jazz big band every night until 1992!

You don’t need to know every lyric to every tune you play, but knowing a few key phrases can take you a long way towards interpreting these great songs. For instance, if you know that “Misty” begins with the words, “Look at me. I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree,” it will help you in at least a few important ways. For one thing, it’ll help you remember the melody better. For another, you’ll know that the song is about “vulnerability.” If you know this, you’ll phrase the melody in a way that expresses this, at least when you choose to do so. On the other hand, you may still choose to play the tune as an uptempo “burner,” but at least you’ll know that you’re departing from the original intent of the song as Miles Davis and others did when they wanted to. In other words, you’ll be making an informed decision about how you play the tune. And when you want to, you’ll be able to phrase the melody in a way that brings out the intent of the lyric, which is beautiful.

Be sure to listen to the Johnny Mathis version of the song at least once. After all, this is what every jazz musician from that time heard in their head as they played the tune. Everyone knew Mathis’ recording during the 1960s and 70s!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book

Misty (song): Wikipedia

Artists You Should Know: Erroll Garner and his song “Misty”
A good introduction to Erroll Garner, by Ton Schnabel

The Erroll Garner - Keith Jarrett Connection

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