Jazz Chord Progressions Piano: The Essential Guide
Want to learn the must-know jazz chord progressions?
You've come to the right place.
In this lesson, you will learn all the jazz chord progressions you need to learn the majority of jazz standard repertoire.
Learning these progressions also helps you learn how to improvise and compose your own tunes.
Let's get started.
1. What Is The Heart Of Jazz Chord Progressions?
The essence of jazz chord progressions is the same thing we find at the heart of tonal music.
This is the transition from I to V to I or V to I.
We can also call this the tonic-dominant relationship, the I chord being the tonic and the V chord being the dominant.
Let me explain further.
In tonal music (the basis of most contemporary music, including jazz), the I chord is considered to be consonant or stable while the V chord is dissonant or unstable.
The way you create interest and meaning in music is that movement or progression from consonance to dissonance and back to consonance.
Every chord progression will follow this pattern at its very structure.
Let's take a stab at "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" as a simple example:
As you can see, the most basic way we harmonize any melody is through a cycle of I's and V's.
While none of these sound like jazz yet, all chord progressions essentially follow this very basic idea.
With a bit more patience, you'll see how this builds up in jazz chord progressions.
2. How To Say "Amen!" With Chords
Another rudimentary move you'll find is the plagal or "Amen" cadence. It's simply the IV-I chord progression or subdominant to tonic chord progression.
You can find it in tons of hymnals because this chord progression is used to accompany the singing of "A"(IV chord)-"men"(I).
In certain styles of music, such as Gospel, holding on the IV chord (at a peak moment of a song), it gives room for vocal and instrumental improvisation.
A variation of this chord progression is IV-iv-I i.e. a shift from a major subdominant chord to minor and then ending at the tonic.
Now that we have established how the V and IV chords can leadLet's look at another common chord progression in jazz.
3. How To Start Playing The Blues
The next chord progression we'll look at is the I-IV-V chord progression.
This chord progression is also common in blues, rock, and some pop music.
Here's what it looks like:
You would normally find the I-IV-V chord progression or some derivative of it various styles of music.
A 12-bar blues using the I-IV-V chord progression would look something like this on a chart:
You can learn a great beginner level arrangement of "Blue Monk" through Zero To Jazz Piano Hero.
Zero To Jazz Piano Hero provides you everything you need to build a foundation for jazz as a beginner.
Let's dig further into that concept called diatonic functions.
What Are Diatonic Functions?
It's important for us to understand what diatonic functions are.
Why? It clarifies how chord functions are built.
Jazz chord progressions follows that tonic-subdominant-dominant relationship.
The tonic chord, being the I chord, is "home" or the tonal center of any given composition
It can either progress to any other chord or the chord that any unstable or tense chord will resolve to (such as the dominant or V chord).
The IV chord or subdominant chord can progress to any chord that functions as a dominant (V) or a tonic (I) chord.
Lastly, the V chord will always transition to a chord that functions like a tonic (or I) chord.
In any major or minor key, there are seven diatonic functions. The four others I haven't mentioned are the supertonic (ii), mediant (iii), submediant (vi), and leading tone (vii°).
However, practically speaking, those chords work either as tonic, subdominant, or dominant depending on the context of a composition. You will discover these later as we explore more chord progressions.
For more clarification regarding these roman numerals I use for chords, please go to our piano chord theory article here.
Now let's go and look at what I think is the most essential jazz chord progression of all time:
4. One Chord Progression To Rule Them All
If there's any one chord progression you need to master, it's the ii-V-I.
Some people would say that a lot of jazz tunes are essentially ii-V-I's strung together.
Anyway, let's look at its basic structure here:
So what we have here is the ii chord as subdominant chord that resolves to V which then resolves to I.
Looking closely at the ii chord, the reason why it works as a subdominant chord is because of shared notes.
In this example, a Dm7 chord has D-F-A-C as its notes. If you leave out the D, you are left with an F major triad, which is the actual subdominant in the key of C.
If you look at plenty of jazz standards, ii-V-I chord progressions are all over the place.
Jazz standards such as Satin Doll, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, and Misty are filled with ii-V-I's.
As you will see in the next few chord progressions, they are all derivatives of ii-V-I's.
Let's dig deeper.
5. The Essential One Among Minor Jazz Chord Progressions
To convert your 2-5-1 into a minor jazz chord progression, you'll need to switch a couple of notes.
You just need to turn ii into a ii(b5) and the I to i but you keep the V the way it was before.
And so you're going to get something like this:
Some of the best examples where you can find this chord progression are the tunes "Autumn Leaves" and "Fly Me To The Moon".
What's The Best Tune To Learn For Essential Jazz Chord Progressions?
The best way to cover both major and minor jazz chord progressions in a single package is to learn the tune "Autumn Leaves".
This is because it essentially features a sequence of major and minor 2-5-1's across 32 bars.
And so, any decent jazz piano student should learn Autumn Leaves.
In fact, you can learn it in a couple of free lessons right here on the site.
The great thing is that you can even expand upon it via Premium Jazz Lessons.
Inside Premium Jazz Lessons, you can learn 3 solo piano arrangements of Autumn Leaves from beginner to advanced.
Sign up for Premium Jazz Lessons here.
Now that we've covered the fundamental jazz chord progressions, let's extend your skills even further.
6. The One Jazz Chord Progression That Links To The Classics
Ever heard of Doo Wop? Those tunes from the 50s? I suppose you know "Stand By Me"?
The thing is that some jazz tunes use a similar chord progression. It's the I-VI-ii-V.
The best example where it's used is the tune "Don't Get Around Much Anymore".
The I-VI-ii-V is also a classic turnaround chord progression. Many blues and jazz blues tunes use this classic turnaround.
Check out this 12-bar blues with a I-VI-ii-V turnaround:
This chord progression is a variant of a classic I-vi-IV-V chord progression. This is what you find in classic hits like "Stand By Me".
Now that you have those basics, learn how to add more excitement through reharmonization techniques below.
7. Tritone Substitution Move: The bVI-V-I
In music, a tritone is an interval a b5 above the reference note. For example, Ab is a tritone away from D.
Just as a side note, it's called a tritone interval because the distance between D and Ab is exactly 3 whole tones away (D to E, E to F#/Gb, and Gb to Ab).
If you remember the ii-V-I from the previous chord progression, we're going to substitute the bVI instead.
It's going to work just like a ii or any subdominant functioning chord.
This particular chord progression creates a nice tension that takes the song slightly outside of the key.
Let's check out another tritone substitution move.
8. How To Chromatically Walk Down Towards The Key
In this next chord progression, we're going to go from ii then bII before landing on I.
So, in the key of C, we have something like Dm7-Dbmaj7-Cmaj7.
A common variant of this is a chromatic descent using dominant chords leading to the tonic.
For example, we can have D7-Db7-Cmaj7. This is a chord progression we see in a tune like Satin Doll.
Another great thing about this, especially when you're writing music, is that you can either use a minor, major, or dominant chord as your "1" chord. Let's talk about it more in the next section.
How Chord Substitutions Work
When you decide on reharmonizing a tune, the only things you need to know are:
- The substitute chord you're using should have at least one common chord tone with the former chord, including the melody note.
- This "reharm" should resolve nicely to the target chord.
If you look at every reharmonization example, it will always exhibit that dominant-to-tonic relationship.
We have more on that topic in our chord substitution lesson here.
Now let's go back and tinker around more chord progressions.
9. Why Always Enter At The Front When You Can Use The Backdoor?
Another cool chord substitution trick is using the chord a minor 3rd above.
Check this out.
We have our ii-V-I in the key of C from earlier.
Let's say we mess around the ii and replace it with a tritone substitution so instead of Dm7 we have Ab7.
Now check this out: Instead of our G7 (V), let's replace it with a chord a minor 3rd above it and so we have Bb7 which is a bVII7 in the key of C.
So now we have Ab7 - Bb7 - Cmaj7.
This is what we call a backdoor chord progression. You see, in this case Bb7 is the backdoor to Cmaj7.
One variant I prefer is Abmaj7 instead of Ab7 since it reminds me of a Stevie Wonder or soul kind of vibe.
Let's check out another awesome jazz chord progression.
10. How To Add A 3-6 Move
Satin Doll is a tune that is a fantastic study for common jazz chord progressions.
In the beginning few bars of Satin Doll, you get a ii-V7.
The added twist is that the next chord progression is a iii-VI7
The way this works is that the iii chord is actually a substitute for the I chord. It functions in a similar manner, but because the iii chord doesn't have the root note of the key (in this case, C), it doesn't sound final.
In fact, the iii chord, technically a mediant chord, will actually work like another subdominant that resolves to a VI7 chord.
The VI7 chord then actually resolves back to the ii chord, allowing you to return to a ii-V-I or a II7-bII7-I in Satin Doll.
This is the kind of trick that allows you to create a chain of chord changes.
In fact in a number of jazz tunes, you can use the 3-6 trick somewhere at the end of the tune to lengthen it or create climax.
Check out this example by Emmet Cohen performing "La Vie En Rose" where the end of the song features that 3-6 trick that creates some kind of hanging excitement near the end:
How To Get The Most Out Of Learning Jazz Chord Progressions
Here are the steps to really make the most out of this tutorial:
- Learn one chord progression at a time. I recommend starting from the very first example mentioned.
- Practice it in one key at first then learn it other keys until you can play it in all 12 keys.
- Listen to songs actively and identify chord progressions being used by ear.
- If you need help with some rudimentary music theory, consult our How To Read Music and Piano Chord Theory tutorials.
These chord progressions and techniques should allow you to get started into learning and understanding how to play jazz tunes.
However, if you want to go even deeper, nothing beats getting guidance from a pro.
Why You Need A Jazz Piano Mentor
With all of these music tutorials floating around the web and on social media outlets like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, you might be wondering how can you straighten all of that.
Worse, all that mess floating around leaves you even more confused.
This is why you want guidance from someone who has actually has tested out everything on stage.
Fortunately, you now have the opportunity to receive mentorship from real world touring jazz piano pros inside the Jazz Inner Circle.
Inside Steve's Inner Circle, you'll discover:
- Private 1:1 lessons with one of our FJL Certified Teachers
- "The Jazz Piano Mastery Program" (Over $25,000 worth of jazz piano training resources, tools, practice templates, improv strategies, & tons more.)
- "The Ultimate Jazz Workout Training System." This is where we implement a complete practice program to build your jazz piano talent in record time.
Some Final Thoughts
I hope you enjoyed this lesson on jazz chord progressions. I hope that this boosts your jazz piano skills to another level.
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for another lesson topic, feel free to leave a note below.
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