(Some more) Jazz Chords and Chord Progressions Basics

The No Nonsense Guide to Secondary Dominants, II-V Interpolation and Turnarounds in Jazz Harmony

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense Guide

This page hosts straight to the point answers to common questions about jazz chords (and harmony in general). No frills. Just plain in simple explanations of how chords work together and why. Ever wondered about “two five’s” (ii-V), cycling, cadences and interpolation? Then read on!

While learning about jazz harmony here, some questions may arise. It’s ok! They are most likely answered somewhere on this very same page. If not, please contact me.


The No-Nonsense Guides to Jazz harmony:

-Part I : two-fives, cadences and roman numerals.

-Part II : secondary dominants, turnarounds, etc.

-Part III : tags, back door and altered dominants.

Compilation eBook

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense GuideBy general request from visitors: You can now get the three “No Nonsense” guides compiled in a practical PDF. It’s the exact same information as found on these 3 pages, but it’s formatted for better reading and printing. 19 pages of pure jazz chords craziness!


Jazz Chords Part II – Table of Content

  • What is a secondary dominant ?
  • What is “ii-V interpolation” ?
  • What is Back Cycling ?
  • What is I-VI-II-V ?
  • What is a turnaround ?


What is a Secondary Dominant ?

A dominant 7th chord that is NOT built on the fifth degree (V) of the current scale. Or: Any dominant 7th chord that resolves somewhere else than on the tonic (I) by means of of a “V – I” cadence.

Here’s why:

We know we can find the dominant chord on the fifth degree of the major scale. For instance, if we are in C major, the dominant (V) is G7. A secondary dominant is build from another note (NOT the V) and progresses (aka “wants to resolve”) towards other chord(s) in the key (and not the tonic.)

In the key of C, outside of the G7 acting as a dominant, we also have the chords A7, B7, C7, D7, E7, F#7 available as secondary dominants, functioning for the other diatonic chords.

To get there, we simply have to ask “What is the V of […] ?” for every chord in the key. For example, if we look at the Dm7 chord in the key of C, we will find that A7 its dominant by asking the question: “What is the V of ii ?”

Therefore A7 is a secondary dominant, and it could create a cadence towards Dm. We call the A7 chord the “Five of Two”, or in symbol “V / ii”. If we do this with all of the diatonic chords in the key, we get :


We therefore have six more jazz chords to be considered almost diatonic in any major key. These secondary dominants are closely related to the key because they have a function, a role to play. That function is resolving to the ii, the iii, the IV and so on. Now, a major tonality has 13 chords instead of just 7 ! Let’s keep exploring this idea in the next topic, ii-V interpolation.

What is “ii-V interpolation” ?

Creating a IIm7-V7 cadence from a single dominant 7th chord. In other words:

Playing a “ii-V” instead of just the “V”.

In other words: when confronted with a single dominant 7th chord, adding a minor 7th chord a fifth above. It’s common to play more than one jazz chords when confronted with a single symbol on a chart…

Example of ii-V interpolation:



This has already been discussed on another jazz chords page on JazzGuitarLessons.net. See the interpolation topic in the chord substitutions article here. Interpolation is often used in traditional and/or contemporary jazz as a technique to develop improvisations, accompaniment or even composition and arranging.

We can use ii-V interpolation with any dominant chord… including the secondary dominants (see above). Here are the 6 secondary dominant with interpolation (in C major):



Of course, it would be wise to use minor II-V’s when resolving to minor jazz chords (the ii, iii, vi and vii in a major key). It that case, the interpolation would yield different results:

(This is just another set of possibilities, not a rule)


Addendum: Interpolation

Interpolation can also happen “in the moment”, as chord substitution device, where the improviser or the accompanist plays the related “ii” minor chord while the rhythm section “stays” on the “V” dominant chord. For example :


When you sound the notes of the Dm7 chord against a G7 (what the rest of the band plays), the result is a “dominant 9th w/sus4”: Here’s what happens.


This way of thinking can be applied to create interest through suspensions/resolutions in otherwise bland and plain chord progressions. Learn you II-V-I formula in all keys and try it on the spot. You’ll be amazed!

What is Back Cycling ?

Using a string of consecutive dominants and/or ii-V cells in front of one another to cycle back to a destination chord (often the I). The result is jazz chords in a root motion through the circle of fifth. Like this:


This topic was also previously discussed on JazzGuitarLessons.net. Please refer to the chord substitutions article. Back cycling is more often make use of ii-V cells (and not just plain dominant 7th chords.) Notice that, on the second stave of the picture above, each dominant chord is the secondary dominant of the next minor 7th chord.

Another way to look at it: Back cycling is a series of secondary dominants with ii-V interpolation a whole step apart played back to back.

In C major, step by step:

  • II-V (this is Dm7-G7)
    we add another II-V cell a whole step up …
  • III-VI – II-V (this is Em7-A7 – Dm7-G7)
    once again …
  • IV-VII – III-VI – II-V (this is F#m7-B7 – Em7-A7 – Dm7-G7)

(Note : in back cycling through chords, it’s possible to use either major OR minor ii-V cells.)

This device is very interesting to spice up harmony and recorded jazz history has numerous example of its applications. It’s been used extensively in arranging, chord melody, improvisation and even composition.

Back cycling was used a lot by the late jazz guitar legend Joe Pass. If you really like that sound and want to learn more about jazz chords, I recommend you get the “Joe Pass Guitar Chords” (under 10$ on Amazon.) Joe himself explains his back cycling techniques in detail.

What is I-VI-II-V ?

I-VI-II-V is probably the most common turnaround progression used in jazz harmony. (see “turnaround” below)

I consider the I-VI-ii-V to be simply an extended version of the most basic ii-V-I cadence. By incorporating the VI as a dominant, we create extra tension because it functions as the secondary dominant of the ii chord. The I-VI-ii-V is often used as a turnaround at the end of a piece. It is definitely better than just “sitting on the I chord” for two bars! For example :

jazz-chords-15 [Those are the last four bars of a jazz standard song.]

You can also find the I-VI-II-V progression in the first few bars of “I Got Rhythm”, the standard song form, the jazz chords being two bars a piece this time. (usually in Bb major) For variety, try changing the chord qualities in the I-VI-II-V progression. Learn more about the I-VI-II-V in this Jazz Chords (Progressions) article…

What is a turnaround ?

A cadence, applied at the end of a tune (or a section of a tune) to bring back the harmony to the top. Typical turnarounds usually:

  • start with a tonic (or tonic-like) sound such as I or iii and
  • end with a dominant (or dominant-like) sound such as V or bII

Examples of common jazz turnarounds:

I – vi – ii – V
(very diatonic)


Imaj7 – VI7 – iim7 – V7
(very common, VI is a dominant)
I7 – VI7 – II7 – V7
(all dominant 7th qualities)
I – bIII – bVI – bII
(all major chords, ala Tadd Dameron on “Lady Bird”)
I – bIII7 – VI – bII7
(Tadd Dameron modified)

My personal favorite is the last one. I like the vibe of it very much. Note that the two “Dameron” turnarounds are basically tritone substitutes of the good old I-VI-II-V (see above the I-VI-II-V topic above).

More turnarounds…

(jazz chords turnarounds using back cycling, secondary dominants, tritone subs, etc.)

Em7b5 – A7 – Dm7 – G7
(back cycling from iii)

E7 – A7 – D7 – G7
(back cycling w/all dom 7th)

Em7 – Eb7 – Dm7 – Db7
(w/tritone subs)

Ebm7 – Ab7 – Dm7 – G7
(this is called called “side slipping”)

Cmaj – C# dim7 – Dm7 – G7
(with #I as an ascending passing diminished)

Em7 – Eb dim7 – Dm7 – G7
(with biii as a descending passing diminished)

Cm – A7 – Ab7 – G7
(with the bVI chord, often in a minor key)


There’s many more turnarounds to be discovered in jazz tradition. I’ll let you study you favorite jazz standards and find, analyze and apply other common turnarounds.


Compilation eBook

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense GuideBy general request from visitors: You can now get the three “No Nonsense” guides compiled in a practical PDF. It’s the exact same information as found on these 3 pages, but it’s formatted for better reading and printing. 19 pages of pure jazz chords craziness!


Continue Reading The No-Nonsense Guides to Jazz harmony:

-Part I: two-fives, cadences and roman numerals.

-Part II: secondary dominants, turnarounds, etc.

-Part III: tags, back door and altered dominants.


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