10 Essential Jazz Chord Progressions

As I mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, most jazz players like to focus on playing around 20 to 30 jazz standards. If another tune comes up at a jam night or as a request at a gig, normally their skills developed by learning their existing repertoire will allow them to play the new tune fairly easily.

This is because the “core” of jazz standards are built around many of the same common chord progressions. When you have learnt the following chord progressions in many different keys, you will quickly discover that they come up time and time again in the most common jazz standards. Think of each of the following sequences as a little “unit” that can be combined to build complete songs.

I hope this makes the mystical world of jazz music suddenly a lot more tangible. All those crazy chord progressions can be broken down into just a few common sequences that are combined in different ways.

The following are all in the key of B♭, but transpose them to different keys and play them around The Circle of Fifths, and make sure you know these basic jazz guitar chords at a minimum.

01. ii V I Major

The Major ii – V – I progression is the bedrock on which jazz is formed. It can be heard in almost every tune from the late swing period onwards. It is important to know that in jazz, the iim7 chord was a slightly later addition and found more popularity during the bebop period. In the majority of the swing era, this chord progression was normally written as simply V – I. The ii chord was added by bebop players to provide additional soloing options without affecting the tonality of the progression.

Good “workhorse” tunes that feature the major ii – V – I sequence are:

  • Blue Bossa
  • Tune Up
  • Autumn Leaves
  • Perdido
  • All the Things You Are

02. I vi ii V7

The I – vi – ii – V progression is extremely common in jazz and is featured in many jazz standards. The sequence was popularized by George Gershwin with the tune, I Got Rhythm and has been a jazz staple ever since. While you will often see it played in its original form, as shown above, the quality of each chord is often changed. The quality of the chord is whether it is Maj7, m7, or 7, etc. For example, it is fairly common in jazz to hear each in the sequence chord played as a dominant 7 voicing.

The I – vi – ii – V progression is known as a turnaround chord sequence because it is often found at the end of a chord progression and turns the song around back to the start.

You will come across the I – vi – ii – V progression time and time again in jazz, and some useful tunes to study are:

  • I Got Rhythm
  • Oleo
  • Moose the Mooche
  • Isn’t It Romantic?
  • Heart and Sou

03. I7 VI7 II7 V7

The previous diatonic I – vi – ii – V progression frequently occurs in jazz and forms the basis for many popular standards. However, some of the chords in this progression are often altered and given different qualities.

The quality of a chord is the part after the root note that describes its mood and construction. For example, a chord’s quality could be Maj7, m7, m75, 7, 79 or even something like 139.

In jazz, any chord can have its quality changed, and the most common alteration is to make some chords into dominant 7s. In the I – vi – ii – V progression, the vi chord (Gm7 in the above progression) will often be played as a dominant 7 chord (G7). Even the I chord is sometimes changed to become a dominant 7 to create a bluesy effect.

04. I (ii V7 I) i

This chord sequence combines two essential progressions into one exercise. The first three bars can be viewed as a key change (modulation) from B♭ to E♭ Major, or simply as a decorated chord I to IV movement. If you have ever played a blues, you will know how important the I – IV chord progression is. In a blues, however, chords I and IV both are normally played as dominant 7 chords.

  • Satin Doll
  • Cherokee
  • Joy Spring
  • Have You Met Miss Jones?
  • There Will Never Be Another You

In bar four, the new tonic chord (E♭Maj7) becomes E♭m7. Again, this kind of movement occurs frequently in jazz.

05. I (i V I)

This progression has quite a lot in common with one previous. A Maj7 (B♭Maj7) chord becomes a m7 (B♭m7) chord, which is now the first chord of a Major ii – V – I progression in a new key.

This type of chord movement is extremely common in jazz, and a useful way to modulate to a new key.

The Major to minor movement occurs in many jazz tunes including:

  • How High the Moon
  • Tune Up
  • Cherokee
  • One Note Samba
  • Solar

06. I II7 iim7 V

This sequence crops up surprisingly regularly and has a recognizable feel. It often occurs in Latin music, especially in the work of Antônio Carlos Jobim.

This chord sequence, when viewed from bar three onwards forms a ii – V – I in B Major, although, in bar two, there is a dominant version of the iim7 chord.

This chord sequence occurs in many tunes, including:

  • Take the ‘A’ Train
  • Donna Lee
  • The Girl from Ipanema
  • Desafinado
  • Mood Indigo

07. I7 IV7 V7 IV7

You can think of this sequence as a ‘distilled’ 12 bar blues. Popular jazz blues tunes include:

  • Billie’s Bounce
  • C Jam Blues
  • Au Privave
  • Straight No Chaser

08. ii V I Minor

The minor ii – V – i progression is extremely common and occurs in many tunes. It functions as a musical ‘full stop’ in much the same way as the Major ii – V – I.

Tunes that extensively feature the minor ii V i sequence include:

  • Alone Together
  • Summertime
  • Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise
  • Beautiful Love
  • Autumn Leaves

09. The Minor Blues

The minor blues is one of the most frequently played jazz progressions and is an especially common request at jam nights. Normally played at a high tempo, this 12-bar blues progression differs from the “standard” jazz blues because of its minor key center, and the relative simplicity of its harmony.

As you can see, there are long periods of static chords, and most of the harmonic interest is generated in bar nine by the non-diatonic A♭7.

Jazz tunes that use the minor blues structure include:

  • Mr PC
  • Equinox
  • Blue Train
  • Israel

10. Descending ii Vs

This is one of the trickier sequences in jazz. A series of chromatically descending ii Vs are played that begin from chord iii of the eventual resolution point of B♭ Major.

It should be noted that this kind of descending chord sequence can begin at any point in a tune, and not necessarily resolve to the tonic key. For example, bar four of the above progression could quite easily be Bm7, Fm7 or even Gm7.

This type of descending sequence is a big feature of a “Charlie Parker-style” blues, and can be heard in tunes such as:

  • Blues for Alice
  • Four on Six
  • Satin Doll
  • West Coast Blues

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KhaiTran

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