HomeVideoMisty Jazz Tutorial: Learn To Play Misty Like The Pros

Misty Jazz Tutorial: Learn To Play Misty Like The Pros

So, you want to learn the jazz ballad, Misty? Excellent! You’ve come to the right place. In this post, we’re going to go over everything you need to know in order to fully understand, memorize, and play Misty.

In this Misty jazz tutorial, you’ll learn—

  • A brief history of the jazz standard Misty
  • Why it’s an important part of the jazz repertoire
  • Best practices you need to follow to learn the melody and chord changes of Misty
  • Essential tips for practicing improvisation over the chords in Misty

Be sure to use the table of contents if you want to get right to the music.

This post will have plenty of information about this cherished ballad, but if you want a more in-depth and comprehensive breakdown of Misty and many other tunes, then you need to check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.

When you join the Inner Circle, you’ll get access to the full study of Misty and full studies of many other jazz tunes. If you want one convenient place to learn jazz standards, improve your jazz playing, and master your instrument, then the Inner Circle is the place to be.

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The Birth of “Misty”

Misty was composed by jazz pianist Erroll Garner in 1954. Garner’s original recording, which was instrumental, appeared on his album “Contrasts,” and it quickly became a hit. With its unique blend of romanticism and musical sophistication, the instrumental version of Misty stole the hearts of many (not only those in the jazz community).

Eventually, it crossed over into the pop world and into the American Songbook library.

The first vocal version was first performed by Johnny Mathis and released as a hit single by Columbia Records in 1959 and featured lyrics written by Johnny Burke. Since then, Misty has been performed and recorded by countless vocalists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few.

Why “Misty” is an Essential Jazz Standard

You might be wondering, “Why is ‘Misty’ so important in the jazz repertoire?” Well, there are several reasons why this tune is an essential jazz standard you need to know.

  1. Firstly, Misty is a jam session regular and a tune that most working jazz musicians will know. If you know this tune, you can bet that everyone else on the stage does, too. You can always rely on it if you need to call a tune or are playing with jazz musicians you’ve never played with before.
  2. Secondly, the song itself is a classic example of a 32-bar AABA ballad. Misty is made up of chord progressions that are found in many jazz tunes, and it has interesting chord substitutions and harmonic techniques built into the song, giving chordal players and improvisers plenty of material to work with when playing a solo or comping chords.
  3. Thirdly, Misty has been interpreted by so many jazz musicians over the decades that it offers a vast resource for learning and inspiration. You can listen to countless recordings, each with its unique interpretation, and learn so much about the jazz language and expression.

Whether you’re just starting on your jazz journey or looking to get serious about learning jazz, exploring “Misty” will undoubtedly enrich your musical experience and help prepare you to learn more challenging tunes down the line.

A Quick Note on The Importance of Learning Ballads

The jazz ballad is a slower, more emotive style of jazz that is deceptively difficult to master. Ballads present a different kind of technical challenge. The slower tempo might seem easier at first glance, but it actually requires a high degree of control and precision. You need to sustain long notes, maintain good time feel and make every note hit in just the right way.

It’s a test of your technical skills but in a different way than fast, complex pieces.

Ballads are the heart of jazz’s emotional expression. Their slower tempos and often poignant lyrics allow for deep emotional connection. When you learn to play a ballad, you’re not just learning notes and chords—you’re learning how to convey emotion through your instrument.

Also, slower tunes open up new possibilities for improvisation. The slow pace gives you more space to stretch out and explore different melodic ideas, rhythmic variations, and expressive techniques.

So, with that out of the way, let’s dive into the specifics of how you should practice learning Misty!

Step 1. Learn the Melody By Ear

One question that often crops up among jazz students is, “Why can’t I just read the melody from sheet music?”

Think of it like this. Would you learn to read using your ears? No, because reading is a visual form of communication. Jazz is an aural art form, so in order to truly internalize all the language and relationships within it, you’ll need to rely on your ears.

Also, when you learn a melody by ear, you’re diving deeper into the music, grasping not just the notes but also every slip, rise, fall, articulation, and blue note that makes the tune come alive.

Learning by ear also develops your musical intuition. It fine-tunes your sense of pitch, rhythm, phrasing, and articulation—skills that are essential for any jazz musician. This not only enhances your musicality but also your ability to communicate with other musicians in a jam session or gig.

While sheet music is indeed a helpful tool, effective jazz playing requires a deep connection to the music. This connection gets diminished when you are trying to read a lead sheet. So, when it comes to learning jazz standards like Misty, you need to get off the page. Your ears are your greatest asset.

Step 2. Learn the Misty Chord Progression

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the melody of “Misty,” the next step is to play through and learn the song’s rich chord progression. “Misty” follows a classic 32-bar AABA structure with a unique harmonic language that is both beautiful and instructive.

For our analysis, we’ll talk about Misty’s chords both by name (Eb) and by Roman numerals (I). If you don’t know how Roman numeral chords work, then you’ll want to check out this post about how to analyze a tune using Roman numerals.

It will make memorizing chord progressions so much easier.

The A Section of Misty (and a Little Music Theory)

Let’s have a look at the A section.

The A section begins on an Eb, modulating to Ab major with a ii-V-I. Though this Ab chord is the IV chord in the key of Eb, we can also consider this a new key. This is called tonicization

But why? Well, we got to Ab by playing a Bb-7 and an Eb7, which are not diatonic chords in the key of Eb (that’s how we know it’s a new key and not just the IV chord).

Then in the 4th bar, we change keys again by playing a ii-V-I to Gb, which is Ab-7 and Db7, but we never resolve to Gb. Instead, we move back to an Eb for the next four bars.

This Db7 is important! We call this a backdoor dominant, and you can find this chord substitution all over jazz music, from Cherokee to Just Friends. This chord substitution replaces the V7 chord, which in Eb would be a Bb7.

Chords for the first 8 bars of Misty

Bars five through eight stay (mostly) in the key of Eb major and contain two variations of the I-vi-ii-V progression. You’ll see the I-vi-ii-V progression all over jazz tunes.

The only difference between these two variations is in the vi chord. In bar five, it is a diatonic vi chord. However, the second time around, it is a VI7 chord. This dominant VI chord makes the pull to F minor stronger.

The I-VI-ii-V only happens in the first ending. During the repeat of the A section, the second ending is a static Ebmaj6 chord.

The B Section of Misty (and Still More Music Theory)

The B section (or bridge) starts with a ii-V-I to Ab major, which takes up the first four bars.

Chords for the first four bars of the B section in Misty.

The second four bars of the B section have more harmonic juice than the first four. In fact, there are several ways to play it, which isn’t all that strange for older jazz songs. This brings up another reason why you need to listen to more than one version of Misty (jazz has a tendency to not have a set way of doing things).

Chords for the last four bars of the B section in Misty

In the picture above, you’ll see two versions, but there are even more. Check out iReal Pro’s version. In the simplest chord arrangement, you have a ii-V to the iii chords, which then leads to a iii-VI-ii-V progression that takes you back to the final A section.

So, now that we have a solid understanding of the melody and harmony, it’s time to blow over the changes. Let’s dig into best practices for improvising over Misty.

Step 3. Practicing Improvisation Over Misty

It’s best practice to play through tunes in a systematic, goal-oriented way to internalize its harmonic movement and intentionally select the notes you hear, not the ones your fingers remember.

There are three main avenues for systematically practicing improv over a song:

  1. Playing scales over the changes
  2. Playing arpeggios over the changes
  3. Playing guide tones and target notes over the changes

This thorough approach to practicing improv will guarantee that you hear the changes correctly and internalize the harmonic landscape of the song. It will give you more freedom and authority to emote and create.

In the following section, we’ll go over how to tackle these three practicing methods using the first eight bars of Misty as an example.

1. Playing Scales Over the Changes

Set a metronome to play on beats 2 and 4. Doing so might be really challenging at slower tempos, but the rewards are worth it. If you can’t get through it, then it’s fine to set the metronome to all four beats. If 2 and 4 become too easy, then only have it set to 2 or 4.

Be sure to focus on time feel and how your notes sound:

Scale map of the first 8 bars of Misty in concert.

Once you feel comfortable with these scales, try altering the scales on dominant chords to reflect various chord extensions. The b9 on the Eb7 in bar two sounds particularly good here.

For more scale ideas, check out our post on the 16 most important jazz scale you need to know.

2. Playing Arpeggios Over the Changes

Whether you play a chordal instrument like guitar or piano or you play a monophonic one like trumpet or saxophone, you need to practice arpeggios over the changes. This will help you hear the chord tones more clearly and add a different sound to your jazz solos.

Try playing this arpeggio exercise with a metronome on 2 and 4, just like the scales.

Be sure to focus on time feel and how your notes sound:

Arpeggios over the first 8 bars of Misty in concert.

3. Playing Guide Tones and Target Notes Over the Changes

When you have to think about target notes for each chord, it forces you to engage with the basic harmonic elements of the tune. Playing scales over the changes is great, but there are many extraneous notes. Even with arpeggios, you often don’t need the root or the fifth to convey the harmonic essence of the progression.

That’s why practicing guide tones is essential. It connects you with the core elements of each chord. The guide tones you should focus on are the 3rds and 7ths. Like with the other exercises, try this with a metronome on beats 2 and 4.

Be sure to focus on time feel and how your notes sound:

Guide tones over the first 8 bars of Misty in concert.

4. Extra Improv Resources:

Backing Track

Play the melody and improvise over our Misty backing track.

Soloing Over Chord Progressions:

Solos to Check Out:

You should check out all of these solos, no matter what instrument you play. But if you want a solo to transcribe on your instrument, check out:

  • For guitar, check out Grant Green on Lou Donaldson’s album A Man With A Horn
  • For piano, check out Kenny Barron on his album A Room With A View
  • For trumpet, check out Freddie Hubbard on his album Sweet Return
  • For saxophone, check out Sonny Stitt on his album Low Flame

Some Great Versions of Misty To Check Out

If you want to really internalize the melody of Misty, then you need to check out many different versions beyond the Johnny Mathis or Erroll Garner recordings. There are so many great arrangements of the song, but definitely check out the following versions of the song.

Erroll Garner:

The original instrumental version of the song is by the composer himself. Garner’s expressive piano playing and unique sense of timing set the benchmark for every “Misty” performance that followed.

Johnny Mathis:

This smooth and heartfelt vocal recording of the song, with Johnny Burke’s lyrics, brought “Misty” into the realm of popular music and remains a classic interpretation.

Ella Fitzgerald:

Ella’s stunning vocal agility and emotional depth brought a new perspective to Misty, making this version of the song a standout performance in her vast repertoire.

Sarah Vaughan:

Known for her rich, lush voice, Vaughan’s version is both sophisticated and deeply moving.

Frank Sinatra:

Sinatra’s version, with its lush orchestration and his signature vocal style, added another layer of depth to Misty.

Wes Montgomery ( With THe Wynton Kelly Trio):

In this live recording, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery offers a soulful and melodic interpretation, showcasing his incredible technical skills.

Stan Getz:

The saxophonist’s recording of the song is a study in lyrical, expressive playing, highlighting the tune’s romantic appeal.

Clark Terry:

This recording of the song showcases Terry’s playful, conversational style of trumpet playing, providing a contrast to some of the more serious renditions. Try to find the live recording with George Benson!

Ray Stevens:

Known for his comedy and novelty songs, Stevens took Misty in a different direction with his country/bluegrass-inspired version of the song, which became a hit in its own right.

Dive Deeper Into Misty By Joining the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle

If you want more of these deep dives into jazz standards like Misty, then you need to check out the Learn Jazz Standards Inner Circle.

When you join, you’ll have access to full, in-depth analyses, exercises, scale maps, guide tone charts, and other invaluable resources to help you become the best jazz player you can be.

Come See What The Inner Circle Is All About

James Melton
James Melton
James Melton is a jazz musician, writer, producer, and educator who operates out of the greater Philadelphia area.

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