Major Harmony in Jazz
The jazz chord progression is the backbone of western civilization music. The harmony created by chords provide added expression to the melody. Jazz harmony consists of a set of typical progressions directly derived from the European classical music tradition.
The goal of the jazz accompanist is to compliment the soloist’s ideas while outlining the given jazz chord progression clearly. As we know, most jazz improvisations use and outline the harmony as a foundation for melodic ideas
This chord progressions series demonstrates the most common progressions found in jazz. They will help you hear and understand the recurrent harmonic traits found in traditional jazz repertoire.
The Major Scale (Chords)
Every story begins somewhere… and this one begins with (you guessed it!) The almighty major scale !
The major scale is made of seven notes from which we can harmonize seven corresponding chords. We qualify them as diatonic because they belong to the same tonality (or key). The diatonic chords in the key of C:
(triangle = major 7th ; dashed circle = minor7(b5) AKA half-diminished)
We will refer to the chords with roman numerals. C is I and Dm is II and so forth until VII. It’s always relative to the key center.
The Diatonic Cycle (starting on IV)
Playing those chords in a cycle of ascending diatonic fourths (or descending fifths) we get the diatonic cycle as follows:
in roman numerals: IV – VII – III – VI – II – V – I – (I) This is the source for many other segments of jazz harmony. I added the C dominant 7th in parenthesis because it’s not part of the C major scale. It simply resolves naturally to F major. C7 is the dominant of F major scale. See this series of articles on dominants.
The diatonic cycle can be developed in many other basic jazz progressions. One example is the enclosed Dm7-G7 which is the infamous II-V found everywhere in jazz. Study the diatonic cycle carefully. Make sure you check out this page of diatonic chord cycles also!
Jazz Chord Progression Quick Fix
For jazz guitarists, I recommend practicing chords in the diatonic cycle of fourth using chord inversions (without the root in the bass register) on the top set of strings. See the Drop 2 Challenge here…
I – VI – II – V and friends
Another example of a jazz chord progression that is enclosed in the diatonic cycle (see above) is the I-VI-II-V:
This is one of the most basic cadence in jazz. It starts “home” (I), goes further (VI-II) and further away (V) with tension and… comes right back! For variety, play the VI as a dominant, it creates a desirable tension :
The A7 (VI) creates more tension and badly wants to resolve to Dm7 (II). While we’re here… why not make the II dominant also? Let’s see…
You now have three effective ways to play on and around the tonic chord in any major key. Wait! Other keys?! Of course! How to play in 12 keys? See this article on chord cycles.
Another friend of I – VI – II – V
To conclude (and to mess with my readers a little bit more!) let’s try something else. This is like… the siblings of the previous topic! Have you ever heard of the II-V ? or the II-V-I ? All right. Now, what would happen if the three variations above started on the D chord (instead of the C)?
TADA!! You get the II-V-I-VI progression
It is merely “shifting the starting point” of the previous examples. Try it:
We can qualify this as “the II-V-I chord progression with an extra chord at the end that wants to resolve back to the II” … or simply II-V-I-VI !
Now it seems we are “stuck in C”, doesn’t it?
How about progressions that go through more than just one major key? Follow me into part 2 …