Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense Guide

Jazz Chords 1: Jazz Harmony and Jazz Chord Progressions Basics

The No Nonsense Guide to II-V-I’s, II-V’s, Cadences and Roman Numerals in Jazz Harmony

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense Guide

Jazz harmony is defined as the theory behind jazz chords, and the practice of how jazz chords are put to use in the context of jazz music. Since american jazz music resembles, in analysis, other practices of Western harmony (i.e. classical music), jazz harmony and theory relies heavily on similar concepts such as scales as the foundation of chord construction.

This page hosts straight to the point answers to common questions about jazz chords, jazz chord progressions and harmony in general. No frills. Just plain and 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 (three webpages):

-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 Guide - Jazz HarmonyBy 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 I – Table of Content

  • What is a II-V-I ?
  • What is a II-V ?
  • What’s the difference between “major two five” and “minor two five” ?
  • How does the II-V-I actually work ?
  • What is a cadence ?
  • What is an “unresolved cadence” ?
  • Why use roman numerals ?

What is a II-V-I ?

The fundamental (and most used) cadence in tonal jazz music. This common jazz chord progression contains three diatonic chords. [Diatonic means: pertaining to a specific key.]

In all major keys, we can obtain 7 diatonic chords by harmonizing the scale in 4-note chords built in thirds. (see this page for diagrams and explanation on diatonic chords)

We’ll use C major to demonstrate. We have:

Diatonic jazz chords - jazz harmony

The triangle means “major 7th”, the dashed circle means “minor 7th (b5)” We need three jazz chords to create the ii-V-I: the second degree, the fifth and the root (circled in red).[See Why use roman numerals?

Therefore, a ii-V-I in C major is spelled:

Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7

You’ll see this progression everywhere in jazz standards and modern compositions. It’s probably the most powerful “harmonic trait” in existence! It’s often very well hidden in more modern jazz tunes (different chord qualities, inversions, rhythmic displacement, and so on…)

If you’re not familiar with this yet, learn to identify i-V-I cells by sight and sound! Watch out : it’s not always in the key of C though!

Here’s a little jazz chords ii-V-I reference chart in all the keys:

jazz-chords-2(Click HERE to view the PDF…)

Jazz chords for guitarists this time: ii-V-I voicings chart for guitar (in all keys) using basic shell voicings (root, third, seventh only):

What is a II-V ?

Simply put: a ii-V-I without the I. Because we are missing the I here, we could call this an unresolved cadence. See What is an unresolved cadence. For instance: Dm7 – G7 (there’s simply no C chord after).

It’s almost as common as the full version ii-V-I and can be found mainly in jazz compositions from the bebop era and on. Learn to identify ii-V cells by sight and sound (also). All you have to do is remove the “one” chord from the above PDF’s and you’ll be set.

Important: Keep the “I” chord in mind as the point of reference at all times in a ii-V (yes, even if it the “one” chord is not being played at all). It is the “chord of destination” that matters the most! For instance, if you see Gm7 to C7 on a chart, you need to make this logical (and conscious) connection in your mind:

“Ok, so this is Gm7 to C7. It is a ii-V in F major”  

Not sure?

I’ll use Stella by Starlight to further demonstrate. Here’s how the first 16 bars of the tune go in “logical terms”:

  • ii-V in D minor
  • ii-V in Bb
  • ii-V-I-IV7 in Eb
  • I (Bb) for one bar
  • ii-V-i in D minor
  • ii-V in Ab
  • F for one bar
  • ii-V in F
  • ii-V in G minor
  • [that’s the bridge]
  • etc.


I love books. At this point I have to recommend two cool jazz books I have in my library. The first one is by David Berkman and it’s called the Jazz Musician’s Guide to Creative Practicing. It’s easy to get lost in the theory, and the author gets you back on track.

Coincidentally, David Berkman also wrote The Jazz Harmony Book recently. His efforts align with mine: make things clearer for anybody interested in the topic of jazz harmony and chords! He’s a piano player so his explanations and probably even neater than mine. 😉

What’s the difference between major two five and minor two five ?

The major and minor qualify the chord of destination at the end of the cadence (the I or tonic). For a major ii-V-I, we use good old Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 (key of C major).

For a minor ii-V-i though, we have to alter the chord qualities to fit the minor sonority of the progression… The ii, V and i chords will then have one (or a few) different notes because they come from a minor scale. Here’s the spelling for a minor ii-V-i in C:

Dm7(b5) – G7(b9) – Cm  

The ii chord has a flatted 5th (aka a “half-diminished” chord) and the V is an altered dominant. The easiest explanation for this minor ii-V-i is tracing back its origin in the harmonic minor scale. Caution: the harmonic minor is NOT the only explanation for the minor ii-V-i.

The Theory:

harmonic minor scale : C D Eb F G Ab B C
(same as major except b3 and b6)

First, this scale contain the Eb that:

1. Acts as the “flat 13” of G7 (altered dominant)
2. More importantly, gives us a minor “one” chord, our friend C minor.

Secondly, C harmonic minor contains an Ab, which acts as:

1. the “flat 5” of Dm7(b5)
2. the “flat 9” of G7.

How does the II-V-I actually work ?

Tensions created, and then resolved, within the progression are the mechanics of this fundamental harmonic cell. The notes contained in the present chord create a tension that is resolved into the next chord.

Here’s the simplest explanation:

Resolution of the 7th descending by a half-step onto the 3rd of the next chord.  

You may want to re-read this many times (out loud!) A picture worth a thousand chords, so, here are shell voicings again (root, 3rd and 7th):


Disregard the root in red.

We observe two important motions in the half-steps:

  • C to B when going from Dm7 to G7
  • F to E when going from G7 to Cmaj7

This is called voiceleading.

This is what creates the tension and resolution. To put it in words: The seventh of the current chord has a tendency to resolve down to the third of the next chord. And the third of the current chord has no tendency and is sustained to become the seventh of the next chord.

Isn’t that neat?! Jazz chords just behave this way. Perhaps it’s clearer here:


What is a cadence ?

Perhaps the most important question on this page! In very brief, a cadence is a concluding type of tension and resolution in harmony (a chord progression). The end of a cadence is where music comes to a rest. (Music “lands” on the tonic, so to speak.) Notice that not all jazz chord progressions are cadences.

Evidently, the Wikipedia cadence article is much more complete than this humble article… but read on if you’re interested in the “shortcut” version!

A typical cadence contains all the following chords:

  • Pre-dominant –> ii or IV (or even iii or vi)
  • Dominant –> V7 (or sometimes a vii of some sort)
  • The tonic –> I (or something else)

The chord that creates tension is called the dominant (the V found on the fifth degree.) It often has a 7th to heighten the degree of dissonance (and therefore raise the urge to resolve back to “I”) See “How the II-V-I Works?”

Some common examples of cadences:

In classical music:

  • C – F – G – C; (I-IV-V-I)
  • C – Am – G – C; (I-vi-V-I)
  • C – F – C; (I – IV – I)
    o This last one is called a plagal cadence, the “Amen” chords

In jazz music:

  • Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7 (iim7-V7-Imaj7)
  • Cmaj7 – A7 – Dm7 – G7 (I-VI7-iim7-V7)
  • Em7 – A7 – Dm7 – G7 (iii-VI7-iim7-V7)
    o Called a turnaround

What is an Unresolved Cadence ?

Often, cadence will not even resolve to its assorted I (tonic). The tension in the dominant is NOT resolved and the music just goes “somewhere else” so to speak.

Music (classical) theory buffs usually call this a deceptive cadence:

  • C – Dm7 – G7 – Am (I-ii-V7-vi)
    o (progression resolving to “vi” instead of the “I”)

In jazz, from the bebop era and on, musicians used unresolved cadences in form of “standalone II-V’s” (with no I). Jazz composer and improvisers started to use the II-V cell as a device/color, more than as a concluding progression or cadence.

You could hear it as a II-V for the sake of a II-V. It even possible to have a stream of II-Vs in different keys to create a certain effect (and to be used as vehicle for improvisation, of course.)

For example, the first 8 bars of the John Coltrane tune Lazy Bird:

|Am7 / D7 / | Cm7 / F7 / | Fm7 / / / | Bb7 / / / |
|Ebmaj ///| Am7 / D7 / | Gmaj7 /// | Bbm7/ Eb7/|

Let analyze this. We have four different II-V cells above :

1. Am7-D7
2. Cm7-F7
3. Fm7-Bb7
4. Bbm7-Eb7

It is fair to say to that #2 and #4 DO NOT resolve in a traditional sense. BUT …

  • Cm7-F7 is going *clearly enough* towards Bb7 sooner than later!
  • Bbm7-Eb7 is used as a “side slipping” device to go back to Am7-D7 when repeating the whole 8-bar section (identical II-V cells a 1/2 step apart, widely used in jazz)

We can also draw examples from some songs in the “standard” repertoire. The first 8 bars of the tune Out of Nowhere:

|Gmaj7 / / /| / / / / | Bbm7 / / / | Eb7 / / /|
|Gmaj7 / / / | / / / / |Bm7 / / / | E7 / / / ||

As an exercise, try to find examples of II-V’s cells that don’t resolve in jazz tunes that you are familiar with.

Why use Roman Numerals ?

We assign numbers to chords built on degrees of a scale. For example, in C major scale we say that the C chord is I, the Dm7 chord is ii, the Em7 chord is iii and so on.

The capital-letter roman numeral implies a major triad (such as major 7th or dominant 7th structures) while the “small caps” ones imply a minor triad (such a minor 7th, minor 7th(b5) and diminished chords):


Ok, but “Why use them in the first place !?” might you ask. Here is the short answer:

Music is played in many different key centers. We always assign the roman numeral I to designate the tonic which is the “home base”. (aka the tonality or key in which the music is being played). Using numbers, we relativize the jazz chords and progressions to understand the logical/mathematical relationships between chords more easily.

The music can then be played from any key (from any “home base”) because the same principles / progressions applies to any/all of the keys. Everything becomes relative once you understand the use of numbers (instead of letters) in jazz chords and harmony.

Here’s something else for you to think about; the picture below depicts the seven diatonic chords of C major AND F major:


Please note:

The tonality (the key) can last for a whole piece or it can change. If a piece moves through different key centers, we use the term key of the moment for analysis.

Another note:

It’s common to use “all caps” roman numeral and add the chord qualities like this:

Imaj7 – VI7 – IIm7 – V7
instead of

It doesn’t matter, all you have to do is make sure you understand “what’s what” in jazz chords! (-:

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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