The Beginner's Guide to Jazz Chord ProgressionsNov 10, 2020
An Overview of Jazz Chords and How They're Combined
Ever wonder why certain songs sound "jazzy"? It's all in the chord progression.
What are Chord Progressions:
Jazz chord progressions are the backdrop to the songs in the Great American Songbook. Typically, these progressions contain seventh chords and move by the interval of a fourth. Some examples of common jazz chord progressions would be ii V I, I vi ii V, and iii vi ii V.
The harmony created by these chords provides added expression to the melody, and creates the traditional "jazz" sound that we all know and love!
Table of Contents
Major Harmony In Jazz
The Major Scale (Chords)
Every Jazz story begins somewhere, and this one starts out mightily, with the major scale!
The major scale is made up of seven notes from which we can harmonize seven corresponding chords. These are typically called "diatonic chords" (the chords belonging to a key). The diatonic chords in the key of C are:
(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, which in this case is C major.
The Diatonic Cycle (starting on IV of the above scale)
Playing these chords in a cycle of ascending diatonic fourths (or descending fifths) we get the diatonic cycle as follows:
These are written in roman numerals: IV – VII – III – VI – II – V – I – (I) and 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!
I – VI – II – V and Friends
Another example of a jazz chord progression in the diatonic cycle (see above) is the I-VI-II-V:
This is one of the most basic cadences 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 (the A7 in this case). It creates a desirable tension as shown here:
The A7 (VI) creates more tension and really 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:
- I – VI – II – V
- Make the Vl dominant
- Make the ll dominant as well
You can play this in all 12 keys by reading this article on Chord Cycles.
More Jazz Chord Progressions: Another Friend of I – VI – II – V
Let’s try something else. Have you ever heard of the II-V, or the II-V-I ? What would happen if the three variations above started on the D chord instead of the C ? (Remember, the D is the ll.)
You've got it, the II-V-I-VI progression!
This progression merely “shifts the starting point” of the previous examples from the l to the ll, but remember the C is still the l , the D the ll and so on. 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 !
You can play these progressions in any key. Let's look at some basic modulation.
Basic Modulation in Jazz
Modulation to IV
We’re staying home tonight:
I (home); II (away); V (further away…); I (home). As in C, Dm7, G7, C.
Tonight, let’s hang out with the neighbours:
I (home); II (…); V (…); I (home???); IV (at the neighbours). As in C, Dm7, G7, C7… F!
It seems like human ears like this friendly neighbour that is the IV! When the modulation is established, we feel “like home” almost immediately. Let’s look at a musical example to clarify all this. Play the following progression on the guitar:
This type of progression can be found in the standard tune “Cherokee” by Ray Noble and in many, many, other songs! As you can see and hear, the I chord becomes dominant right before going to IV. This is the heart of the modulation. You can also notice the IV minor right before going back “home” to the I.
I will not go into theoretical details here. If you are interested in more jazz harmony, check this out; “The Ultimate No Nonsense Guide to Jazz Harmony”.
Bluesy Modulation to the IV
Believe it or not, the very common blues progression contains a modulation to the IV key. The I chord is dominant right before going to the IV. Here it is:
Try embellishing the fourth bar of the blues with some alterations such as a; b9, #9, b5 or a #5. They create a tension that is released when establishing the IV such as going from a C7(b9) to an F7. Here’s an example of some of that jazzier blues with those alterations added:
It's possible to use a II-V-I in the key of the IV to create an even clearer modulation in bars 3, 4 and 5. For example, to go to F, we use Gm7 and then a C7 with a b9:
Study the blues progression. It is worth more than you might think at first.
See all the blues lessons on this website here.
Listen to Oliver Nelson’s recording of “Blues and the Abstract Truth” (1959, Impulse).
The Bird Blues
Another one to check out is the “bird blues” progression. It’s a common line that Charlie Parker played a lot of during the bebop era. You can listen and play tunes such as “Blues for Alice”, “Chi Chi” and “Freight Trane”.
Try this in the key of C :
Cmaj / / / / | Bm / E7 / | Am / D7 / | Gm / C7 / |
F7 / / / | Fm7 / Bb7 | Em7 / A7 / | Ebm7 / Ab7 /
Dm7 / / / | G7 / / / | Cmaj / A7 / | Dm7 / G7 / ||
The “bird blues” progression still modulates to the IV of the key, but it has that major-to-minor melancholy type of sound.
Let's talk about minor harmony in jazz where it's possible to modulate to the lV minor and to any other minor keys.
Minor Harmony in Jazz
The Diatonic Cycle in Minor
Every major key has a relative minor. For instance, C major contains the same notes as A minor. We can play the same progressions in minor keys simply by changing the chord qualities. This page of diatonic chord cycles explains more.
Let’s play the diatonic cycle in C minor (same notes as Eb major):
IV – bVII – bIII – bVI – II – V – I
This progression can also be seen as a II-V-I in the key of Eb followed by a minor II-V-I in C. In fact, it could even be seen as a II-V-I in Eb major followed by a modulation to the key of VI minor (which is C minor). Good to know and be able to play it.
I – VI – II – V and friends
Like the major I-VI-II-V there are plenty of variations in minor. Here’s the basic one from which you can derive more progressions:
And don’t forget my suggestion from the major harmony section of this article. Start on the II! We then get II-V-I-VI as follows:
Minor Blues Jazz
The basic blues progression is also played in minor tonalities. And guess what? It contains a modulation to the IV, in minor! There are two main kinds of minor blues progressions.
The first one uses a “tonic minor” sound using melodic and harmonic minor scales with the I and IV as a minor 6th or a minor maj7th chord quality:
The second one, often called “modal” blues, uses the minor 7th chord quality (Dorian sound) for the I and the IV:
This is the progression found in John Coltrane’s “Mister P.C.”
You are on your way to playing every possible jazz progression on the guitar, in all keys, in all styles and at all tempos... Well, maybe we will learn them one at time.
Seriously, if you feel comfortable with most of the progressions above, consider using some chord substitution ideas. Chord changes are fascinating and I believe every jazz guitarist should continually study jazz and classical harmony. Don’t forget; we comp… lots! Have you ever noticed your “comping to soloing ratio” on a gig? In a band, we'll accompany more than anything.