Play Misty For Me | Erroll Garner Tuesdays Week Two

The following post is part of “Erroll Garner Tuesdays,” a semester-long blog series written by University of Pittsburgh music doctoral students in the seminar titled Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh. It was originally published by the University of Pittsburgh.

Image above: Archival Screenplay of the film Play Misty for Me

Image above: Archival Screenplay of the film Play Misty for Me

A tale of suspense and horror, the film Play Misty for Me features elements of eerie romance with a tinge of jazz. And at the forefront is none other than jazz pianist Erroll Garner and his heart-warming ballad “Misty.” Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, the 1971 thriller conspicuously alludes to the Garner classic within its very title. Specifically, the phrase “play ‘Misty’ for me” refers to an ominous request made by a mysterious caller (Evelyn Draper played by Jessica Walter) to disc jockey Dave Garver (Eastwood). His iconic response emerges during the concluding scene: “And now here’s a pretty one for lonely lovers on a cool, cool night. It’s the great Erroll Garner classic, Misty. And this one is especially for Evelyn.” As the camera zooms out over Carmel Bay, the viewer sees Evelyn’s dead body strewn upon the rocks. The image is accompanied by a performance of the titular piece by Garner with orchestra and rhythm section.

Though Garner’s composition may “get the last word,” a letter from Martha Glaser (Garner’s manager) to film producer Robert Daley shows that the relationship between the pianist and the film studio wasn’t always completely harmonious. Dated August 6, 1971, the letter indicates that Garner had recorded a new trio version of “Misty” on February 27, which was intended for use in the film. Much to the dismay of Glaser, however, an early cut failed to include a full performance of the piece. Instead, it was broken up into smaller segments scattered throughout the film. Additionally, Garner was asked to record several shorter versions of the song, two of which were included in one of the deejay scenes. Glaser argued that Eastwood was entitled to only one full-length version and therefore perceived this as a breach of the original contract. As a result, she ordered to have the trio recording removed from the film:


“We are returning your token fee to Mr. Garner. At NO PRICE is he available to record on a sound track in such abortive fashion—particularly on his own best known selection. Please acknowledge in writing that you are removing the Garner performance from the film Play Misty for Me.”


Glaser’s letter is replete with meaning on a number of levels. First of all, it is indicative of her determination to protect Garner’s rights throughout the recording and production process. For Glaser, this was nothing new. Her advocacy for Garner throughout his career—particularly in legal matters—was well-known in the jazz world, and is an ever-present theme in the Garner archive. Secondly, the letter reveals layers of unequal power dynamics between the film industry, the recording studio, and the musician at work. Glaser is particularly leery of the intentions of the film’s producers: “You people must have known all along that you weren’t going to use Garner properly—and you should not have used him in that case.” To be fair, Daley and by extension Eastwood—who has been a long-time patron of the jazz community—had their own aesthetic rationale for including the shorter versions of “Misty” during the deejay scene. This is indicated in an earlier letter from Daley to Glaser, dated August 3, 1971:


“I have had meetings with Dee Barton, Harry Garfield, head of music, Carl Pingitore, the editor, and Clint Eastwood. Their reasons for using different lengths of “Misty” are due to dramatic requirements of the scenes in which it is played. They feel that to have used the standard version and only play pieces of it would have been detrimental to the dramatic qualities of the film and to the recording itself.”


Nevertheless, the overall correspondence shows the many ways that the film industry and record companies can utilize power in appropriating a given music recording. It also reveals the challenges involved in asserting artists’ rights in the face of a massive media corporation.

- Billy D. Scott
Doctoral Student in Jazz Studies, University of Pittsburgh