Jazz musicians use chord progressions as the foundation of popular jazz standards, chord changes to improvise over, and even as practice exercises.

So, what is a chord progression? A chord progression is a set of chords played in sequence. These progressions set a songs harmonic structure, and when combined with a melody, they create lead sheets for jazz standards.

Jazz theory gives us some common functional chord progressions that are used across many songs. By practicing these common progressions in different keys and styles, you will automatically improve your ability to play standards as well.

Chord Progressions Are Relative To Their Key

When we look at lead sheets and real books, chords are notated with their letter names. But, when we study the progressions we should number them using Roman Numerals based on their position in the key. This is because chord progressions are relative to the root of the key, and apply equally across all 12 keys.

For consistency in this article I’ve written each progression in both its Roman Numeral form, as well as its application in the key of C.

As you expand your study of chord progressions you’ll start to recognize common micro progressions that are sequenced to create to create larger macro progressions. The micro progressions are almost all originate from the Circle of Fifths whereas the macro progressions often come from historical influence, perhaps extracted from standard tunes or forms.

For example, a micro V-I progression comes directly from a dominant relationship in the harmonic series. But, the “12 bar blues” macro progression has been passed down through the years from blues player to blues player.

In a similar way, the Rhythm Changes are a standard chord progression that originated from the tune, I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin. The structure of that song has been used to create new jazz recordings ever since.

This demonstrates the importance of practicing new techniques across these sets of progressions. Once you’ve learned the techniques in this way, you can automatically apply those techniques when playing the tunes that use these progressions.

Progressions

There are thousands of progressions in practice across the world of jazz. As such, this article can not possibly be comprehensive. With that in mind, we’ve pulled aside some of the most common progressions you’ll run into in your everyday playing. I encourage you to look for more of these progression patterns as you play and add them to your library as well.

Micro Progressions

All traditional chord progressions are made up of smaller componentized progressions that I call micro progressions. These are only 2 or 3 chords long and are the most fundamental building block of chord sequences.

I find it helpful to understand the function of these micro progressions individually prior to stringing them together to create full progressions.

All examples are in the key of C, either major or minor depending on the progression.

5-1

The most important chord movement is from the V to the I, the dominant to the tonic. Fundamentally, music is a journey of leaving home (the tonic), going on a journey and returning back home. The dominant paves the way home. It creates tension with voice leading that resolves perfectly back to the tonic.

Major V-I:

Minor V-i:

Note that in the minor version, the i chord is traditionally a 6th chord.

2-5

A ii-V chord movement is a great way to move briefly into a different key. The movement is a 5th interval, like the V-I, and so the voice leading makes this a very natural progression.

Major ii-V:

Minor iib5-V:

Try using a ii-V progression outside of your current key. That will help give your playing the feeling of leaving home, and give you the opportunity to explore the journey back.

Major ii-V around G, the fifth degree in the key of C:

There’s another common variation of the ii-V called a secondary dominant. In that case you exchange the minor ii chord for a dominant II. The II-V is actually a V-I resolving to the dominant key instead of the tonic. For that reason, this is also called a “5 of 5.”

2-5-1

The quintessential jazz chord progression, the ii-V-I, is just a combination of the two previous progressions, the V-I, and the ii-V. Functionally, the progression can bring you home to the tonic, establish a new tonal center, or provide ways to dress up existing harmonies.

Major ii-V-I:

Minor iib5-V-i:

Tritone Substitutions

We can alter these V-I and ii-V-I progressions by substituting the V for the note a tritone away, the flattened ii. Both the 5 and the bii have the same notes for the 3rd and 7th, which makes the root note the primary difference between them. The voice leading from the b2 to the I is a very strong semi-tone movement, known as a leading-tone.

Major V-Iwith Tritone Substitution:

Tritone sub for ii-V-I:

Backdoor Progression

There is another variation of the ii-V-I called the "backdoor." This progression is also quite common, but requires a bit more exploration to understand.

Conceptually, the backdoor is built on the premise of substituting the V chord for another chord, a dominant 7th chord built on the b7 of the key. In the key of C, that would substitute a G7 chord for a Bb7.

If you take a look at the two chords side-by-side you'll notice there are common tones between them, the D and the F. The other two notes in the G7 chord, G and B, only move slightly by a semitone each to Ab and and Bb.

Basing the progression around the Bb7 as the V, we can reverse engineer that the ii chord needs to be Fmin. The resulting progression, Fmin-Bb7-Cmaj, is a resolution from the plagal side of the Circle of Fifths (the opposite direction of the ii-V-I) and thus is called the "backdoor."

To simplify this for practical playing, most jazz players I know think of this as a ii-V in the key a minor 3rd above the root (Eb in the key of C).

The backdoor progression certainly sounds different than its cousin the ii-V-I, but yet because of the strong voice leading, it resolves confidently.

Diminished Passing Chords

If you ever want to move from one chord to another chord a whole step away, you can stick a diminished chord in between them. This is a technique used by lots of standards, but it always reminds me of the opening sequence of Ain't Misbehavin'.

Diminished chords are inheritenly unstable and like to resolve by half-steps. For the reason, this works almost universally with any quality of chord.

The example below is a classic bluesy manuever, moving from IV to #4dim to V7.

1-4

The movement from the I to the IV chord is also very common. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice this I-VI movement is actually a V-I in the key on the 4th scale degree.

One way to use this movement is to change the I chord to be a dominant chord instead of major. That makes it a stronger resolution to the 4, which opens the door to explore the subdominant key.

4-5-1

In a major key, the IV, V and I chords are all major. It's not the most interesting progression, but it is a classic. It's the basis of the blues, and as the blues turned into rock, it's become the foundation of our rock and roll music since.

Breaking from diatonic harmony, blues players usually make all 3 chords dominant chords. This makes each of them feel unresolved, anticipating the next chord. This creates a perpetual cycle of unresolved chords, which is the basis for

Major IV-V-I:

Connecting 2-5-1's by Whole Steps

Lots of jazz standards temporarily modulate to the key a whole step below their current root. Using ii-V-I's, this is a quite natural movement. After landing on the I, you can keep the same root note but make the chord minor, which becomes the ii in the ii-V-I for the key a step down.

For example, we can start with a ii-V-I in C: Dm-G7-C and then turn the C into Cm, making a ii-V-I in the key of Bb: Cm-F7-Bb.

You can find this pattern used in tunes like How High the Moon, Solar and Cherokee.

Whole Step ii-V-I Chord Progressions by Whole Steps

A popular way to use this technique is to move from a major I to the major II. This II chord is non-diatonic -- not belonging to the original key -- but you can bring it back home to I following this same technique. This technique was popularized by The Girl from Ipanema and Take the A Train.

Turnaround Progressions

The next step in moving from micro progressions into larger forms is to understand the structure of the turnaround progression.

Simply put, a turnaround is a way to bring your song back home to the tonic by walking back through the circle of fifths.

As we've learned, a ii-V-I is just progression through resolving chords by fifths. The ii down a fifth to the V, down a fifth to the I. The turnaround just extends this by adding more chords to the front of the cycle. For example, the vi-ii-V-I introduces a vi moving down a fifth to the ii, and then continuing through the ii-V-I cycle. It can be extended further into a iii-vi-ii-V-I as well.

It's is most true form, these turnarounds are built diatonically from the key, with the ii & vi chords as minor, the V chord as dominant and the I chord as major.

6-2-5-1:

3-6-2-5-1:

Like we did with secondary dominants back in the section on ii-V-I's, any of the chords in the sequence can be changed into dominant chords to create more "pull" towards the following chord.

6-2-5-1 with secondary dominants:

3-6-2-5-1 with secondary dominants:

We labeled these secondary dominants previously as a "5 of 5." In that way, we call these "5 of 5 of 5" or the more obnoxious "5 of 5 of 5 of 5."

Like the Tritone Substitution we explored earlier, any of these "5 of 5's" can be substituted for the tritone as well. Here's a common version that creates a chromatic bass line:

3-b3-2-b2-1 (3-6-2-5-1 w/Tritone Subs):

Blues

We can't have a discussion about jazz chord progressions without talking about the blues. The 12 bar blues form is a conventional set of 12 measures built using I, IV and V chords. The standard form has been used countless times through the blues genre, but also in all forms of music that have built from those roots.

Classic rock and roll tunes, such as Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry), Hound Dog (Elvis), Rock and Roll (Led Zepplin), Tutti Frutti (Little Richard) and I Got You - I Feel Good (James Brown) are written on top of the following classic 12 bar blues form:

Basic 12 Bar Blues Chord Progression

As musicians have brought their own ideas and influences to the blues, they've extended and modified it to fit their desires. Each of the ones that follow are still rooted firmly in the original form, but have been extended with turnarounds, intermediate chords, extended voicings and more. But, in each case, it's still very much "the blues."

Here are a few of the most common variations of the blues. The first is a slight variation with a I-IV quick changes, and a secondary dominant added to create a turnaround:

Upgraded Blues Chord Progression

Count Basic took this a step further introducing a #4dim passing chord:

Count Basie Blues Chord Progression

Bebop players explore "outside" the changes by introducing ii-V's in front of the IV and ii chords.

Bebop Blues Chord Progression

Tritone substitutions are added on some V chords to give chromatic base movement:

Tritone Substibution Blues Chord Progression

Charlie Parker shows his brilliance by introducing more ii-V's, minor ii-V's, and chromatic dominant chords. This has become known as "Bird's Blues."

Charlie Parker "Bird Blues" Chord Progression

"Rhythm Changes"

In 1930, George and Ira Gershwin published I Got Rhythm as part of the musical Girl Crazy, It was a huge sensation, but it wasn't until 1945 when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie first recorded Anthropologie, based on the same chord structure, that the tune was immortalized as a jazz standard.

These changes are the foundation for dozens, if not hundreds, of other jazz standards including Anthropology, Oleo, Cheek to Cheek and even the theme song for The Flintstones.

The Rhythm Changes are actually 2 chord progressions, an A and B section, put together in an AABA form.

A Section

Rhythm Changes A Section

B Section

Rhythm Changes B Section

Putting It All Together In Practice

Take a look through both the 12 Bar Blues and the Rhythm Changes and you'll notice the micro progressions we focused on so intently.

  • The 12 bar blues is full of I-IV, and V-I micro progressions.
  • The A section of the Rhythm Changes is just a vi-ii-V-I turnaround
  • The B section of the Rhythm Changes is just a III-VI-ii-V-I using secondary dominants.

Similarly, each of the tunes you play are made up of the same micro progressions. Building your practice routine around these progressions will tactically install them into your muscle memory. Your ability to intellectually recognize them in other contexts will allow that muscle memory to apply to those tunes almost automatically.

Take the time to internalize these core progressions and build them into your practice routine. Happy practicing!

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