7 Top Jazz Chord Progressions – With Real Examples

Jazz Chord Progressions

Although jazz utilizes the same 12 notes in music every other genre does, it seems to occupy its own “space” in terms of stylistic properties. It’s quite distinct from, say, rock or country.

It’s more than fair to say that the genre of jazz has chord progressions that are either strongly associated with it or relatively unique to it. And if you’re looking to get into jazz, or want to hone your jazz skills, it would be good to know these!

In this guide, we’re going to be looking at several jazz chord progressions you can play, experiment with, and even incorporate into your songwriting.

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Major ii – V – I

Example: Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7

If you’ve listened to jazz for any length of time, you will have heard this progression countless times. It is just that all-present and important.

Before we get too carried away with the nitty gritty of it, though, here’s an example of where you will have certainly heard this chord progression in action – jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.”

Here’s Frank Sinatra’s rendition:

Notes About This Chord Progression

As most jazz teachers will tell you, the ii – V – I progression is bar none the most important chord progression in jazz. It gives you a solid foundation in jazz music, and it is even used frequently in other musical styles.

This chord progression alone will grant you entry into the somewhat complex and deep world of jazz, which is the meeting place of virtuosic skill and a sophisticated approach to music theory. Just as there are scales and chords that represent a great place to start for beginner musicians, this chord progression is the best place to start for newcomers to jazz.

How does the chord progression sound? To me, it sounds breezy, as if you were taking a stroll along the seashore on a warm, sunny day. But depending on what tempo it’s being played at, as well as what chords it’s surrounded by, it can also sound a tad melancholy, kind of like on “Autumn Leaves.”

A good thing to try is to play through the chord progression in every key. While we wouldn’t normally recommend such a daunting task to a beginner, if you’re looking to get into jazz, you need to get comfortable with your instrument playing chords in every key!

Study Guide

Here are a couple more notes on this progression to help you master it:

  • If you’re going to jam with a friend who is a little more experienced at jazz, and suggest this chord progression to jam on, they’re probably going to throw something a little more interesting at you (likely because of how many times they find themselves playing it), like a ii – V – I – vi (or VI) progression. I learned this firsthand. Be ready!
  • Look for interesting ways to put your own spin on this progression (also see above).
  • Since it is one of the most common jazz chord progressions out there, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to come up with some licks and soloing ideas over it. Even more so if you’re going to jam on it. The C major scale is obviously a good place to start, but it is important to think in terms of chord tones and how one chord connects to the next as well!

Minor ii – V – I

Example: Dm7(b5) | G7 | Cm7

Okay, so hold on, there’s a minor version of ii – V – I? When I first heard this, my head was kind of spinning, too. But indeed, jazz chord progressions can be in major or minor, just that the chord qualities change.

And you will see this often, so whenever you see a new chord progression, you should get into the habit of identifying whether you can turn a major progression into a minor one and a minor progression into a major one.

Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of jazz standard “Yesterdays” is one place you’ll hear this progression in action. Listen and learn!

Notes About This Chord Progression

The minor ii – V – I progression is common in jazz and Latin music, and less so in other styles. Overall, it’s a little more complex than the major ii – V – I progression too.

Not surprisingly, it has kind of a serious (and even slightly dissonant) vibe compared to the major ii – V – I. That said, it isn’t decidedly dark or sad. It has that sophisticated, “sitting at a classy lounge chatting with friends while sipping a fancy cocktail” kind of feel to it.

To my ears, because the progression is slightly unsettled and offers no completion, it feels like it wants to move into an infinite descending ii – V – I (so, if your I was Cm7, after playing the I chord, you would transition to F7, the V in Bbm, etc. – basically the cycle / circle of fourths), but that could just be me. You start to make associations like that on your own the more you play music!

(Don’t forget – music is an artform. So, it can’t hurt to think creatively in terms of chord progressions. Make your own associations!).

Again, you can try this chord progression across all key signatures for a bit of an added challenge!

Study Guide

Here are a few more notes on this chord progression to help you on your journey:

  • The V chord can be altered, and often is. That means turning it into a b9, #9, #5 (and even a #11) at times. If you don’t know these chords, it’s time to go to school on them!
  • Compared to the major ii – V – I chord progression, this one is decidedly harder. Practice plenty until it feels comfortable to you!
  • This chord progression can also be heard on a tune like “Alone Together.” Have a listen and see if you can identify where it’s being used. Do the same with some of your other favorite jazz standards.

Major I – vi – ii – V

Example: Cmaj7 | A7 or Am7 | Dm7 | G7

The major I – vi – ii – V chord progression is yet another that calls for calming, relaxed vibes. It is very common in jazz, most often heard in Rhythm Changes tunes (we’ll be talking more about Rhythm Changes as we go).

Here’s the Miles Davis Quintet performing “Oleo.”

You’ll notice there’s a lot of movement in this tune, and fast chord changes tend to create this.

Notes About This Chord Progression

According to diatonic theory, the vi chord should always be a minor. But in jazz, it’s quite common to turn it into a dominant 7. If you try playing the chord progression for yourself, you’ll probably see why. It has a natural if slightly surprising sound to it.

But compared to the m7, the dominant 7 will add more flavor and color to the mix. Considering jazz is a genre built around a delicate balance between “heard it before” and “wow, that’s surprising,” it makes sense to go for color, even if not on every repetition.

See, if you go too far in the direction of “heard it before,” audiences tend to tune out naturally. But if you go too far to the other side in the direction of “wow, that’s surprising,” you basically end up with creepy atonal music people naturally feel like getting away from. In jazz, you’ve got to find the balance!

(By the way, I apply this principle to most of my soloing efforts, jazz or not.)

You may also notice that there’s less resolution with this chord progression, especially compared to ii – V – I. That’s kind of the point of jazz, that it doesn’t really resolve, so it’s easy to see why this would be an essential progression.

Study Guide

Here’s what you need to know about this chord progression:

  • We’ll be looking at “Rhythm Changes” in more depth later, but this is the progression that forms the foundation of Rhythm Changes.
  • For reasons we’ve already explored (and some we’re about to explore), there are a lot more tunes utilizing this progression. Here are a few more for you to listen to and study: “Moose The Mooche,” “Shaw ‘Nuff,” “Mean To Me,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” as well as “Long Ago And Far Away.”

Minor i – vi – ii – V

Example: Cm7 | Am7(b5) | Dm7(b5) | G7

And now we get to explore the minor version of the progression we just looked at. Naturally, the chord qualities change to adjust for the key (C minor is different from C major, not surprisingly).

With two half diminished chords in tow, you might think we’re wandering right into “jazz odyssey” territory, but the strangest thing about the chord progression is probably finding your path to improvising over it!

You can hear this progression in Chet Baker and Wolfgang Lackerschmid’s take on “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise.”

Notes About This Chord Progression

I’m a big fan of this chord progression. It is decidedly bluesy (and maybe even a little “spy” ish), and hearing it, it makes you want to throw on your sunglasses and get up and dance in a jazz club.

I don’t know of any jazz song that’s made up entirely of three chords, let alone four (the typical jazz song follows an A – A – B – A structure, meaning it has at least two parts to it with multiple chords, with variations on the A part). But as you’ve probably figured out by now, four chords mean more movement than three! And with progressions like these the chords are sometimes given half a bar versus a full one!

Another interesting fact about this chord progression – it is often used as a turnaround.

If you master this and the other three progressions, we’ve looked at so far, you will do well in jazz!

Study Guide

Here’s how to get your fingers under this progression:

  • Those half-diminished chords can present a bit of a challenge, especially for guitarists. Take your time with these and remember that there are always multiple ways of playing the same chord on your fretboard. That is, at the end of the day, the essence of comping in jazz – you rarely return to play the same thing the same way twice!
  • You’ll often hear this progression in jazz blues style tunes. It can’t hurt to listen to and study songs like “All Blues,” “Blues For Alice,” “Blues In The Closet,” “Cool Blues,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Tenor Madness,” “Watermelon Man,” and more.

I – vi – ii – V – iii – VI – ii – V

Learn jazz guitar

Example: Cmaj7 | Am7 | Dm7 | G7 | Em7 | A7 | Dm7 | G7

Okay, so at first glance this is going to appear a complete mess of a progression (although the first half should be familiar by now). But like I mentioned earlier, it comes from what is widely known as Rhythm Changes in jazz, a progression that was used in George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

It’s another progression you must know, because it has formed the foundation of many a jazz jam. So much so that many songs were born out of it.

Here’s Frank Sinatra’s “Cheek To Cheek” to get you better acquainted with this progression:

Notes About This Chord Progression

This chord progression is mostly built around the I – vi – ii – V progression we looked at earlier. The second half is basically like a variation on the first. You’re just substituting the I with a iii and the vi with a VI.

Like I said earlier, predictability is the enemy of jazz. And where there’s an opportunity to bring some color and interest, guaranteed you will find players adding their own spin to things.

Aspiring jazz players would do well to find creative ways of outlining these chords. While the progression may appear simple, it goes about as deep as you want it to go. So, look for creative ways of playing this progression, especially while comping.

Study Guide

Here are some ideas to help you make the most of this progression:

  • Practice it in every key! That’s quite the undertaking all its own. Also work on your comping skills.
  • Jam it out with some friends. The best way to reinforce your practice time is through real-life experience, so next time you’re organizing a jam session, explore Rhythm Changes with them.
  • Go back to the source and explore George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.”
  • Looking for more songs to study? Check these out: “Anthropology,” “Dexterity,” “Steeplechase,” “Cottontail,” and “Lester Leaps In.” That should keep you busy for a while!

I – #I – ii – #II – iii – VI

Example: Cmaj7 | C#dim7 | Dm7 | D#dim7 | Em7 | A7

Okay, so this is where things start to look a little more complex and confusing. What’s going on with this chord progression anyway?

One thing you should be able to identify relatively quickly is how the first five chords are ascending chromatically. So, the #I and #II chords are diminished 7 passing tones that bridge the gap between the chord that comes before it and the chord that comes after it.

Here’s Charlie Parker playing “Cherokee” to give you an idea of how this works:

Notes About This Chord Progression

Here’s a chord progression that sounds jazzy indeed! And if you’re not used to playing those diminished chords, you’re probably going to be surprised to find just how smooth they can sound in a progression like this (diminished chords feel at home at last – they usually don’t in other genres).

Diminished chords obviously create harmonic tension (remember – jazz is about the unexpected and surprising), which in this case is only accentuated by the chromatically ascending bass.

Chord progressions like these are important to learn. There are similar “passing tones” embedded in a variety of standards, even if they don’t take this exact form.

Study Guide

Here are some tips on this chord progression:

  • Whether you’re playing guitar or piano, look for smooth ways to transition between each chord. Hint: if you’re on the guitar, you don’t need to change your position drastically for each chord.
  • Looking for more songs to explore? Check out “Have You Met Miss Jones,” “Joy Spring,” “But Beautiful,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

i – i/b – bVI – V

Example: Cm7 | Cm7/B | Ab7 | G7

Wow! Does that look confusing or what?!

When you see the example, you realize it’s not as weird as you first thought, but seeing it presented as roman numerals is kind of strange.

So, what is this anyway? Well, it’s basically a minor-key turnaround. And you can hear it in the Stray Cats’ “Stray Cat Strut.”

Of course, it can work great as a repeating chord progression as heard in “Stray Cat Strut.” It’s kind of reminiscent of “Hit The Road Jack” too.

Notes About This Chord Progression

There are few chord progressions as cool as this one, don’t you think? It has a mysterious, bluesy vibe, and it’s a fun one to solo over! Throw on those sunglasses because the future is looking much too bright!

Whether you play guitar or piano, there are some fun ways of processing this progression. Be sure to add a few approaches to your repertoire so your comping game is up to par.

And of course, most importantly, have fun with it!

Study Guide

Here’s a tip on this chord progression:

  • If you’re writing your own song, then look for creative ways to use this progression. It already has a strong association with certain tunes, like “Stray Cat Strut.” But if you incorporate it creatively, you’ll be able to deliver a fresh sound. As noted earlier, it makes for a great turnaround.

Best Jazz Chord Progressions, Final Thoughts

As with all genres of music, jazz is a fun one to play. It can take a while to get into it, and because it can be one of the hardest to play, it is often adopted by seasoned players first.

That said, I also know people who started out their careers in jazz (and therefore had a hard time playing simpler genres like pop and rock). There are no rules to where you start. But know that mastering chord shapes, scales and arpeggios, and in-depth music theory (all of which constitute jazz) can take a while.

We hope you enjoyed this guide, and don’t forget. It’s not just about the chord progressions, but also about what you do with them!

P.S. Remember though, none of what you've learned will matter if you don't know how to get your music out there and earn from it. Want to learn how to do that? Then get our free ‘5 Steps To Profitable Youtube Music Career' ebook emailed directly to you!

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