To be successful in jazz improvisation, a solid understanding of harmonic progressions is essential. And a good place to begin learning chord progressions is with the ii-V-I Jazz Progressions.
Now the ii-V-I (“two-five-one”) progression is not unique to jazz. But it’s one of, if not the, most commonly recurring chord progressions in jazz harmony.
Just about every jazz tune you’ll see has several of these chord progressions. So mastering this chord progression in every key will go a long way toward achieving that understanding.
What Chords Make Up the ii-V-I Progression?
So first let’s take a look at the ii-V-I progression. And just to keep things simple, we’ll select the key of C Major (no flats or sharp).
So as you can see, chords in this progression are built on the 2nd, 5th, and root of the scale, in this case on “D,” “G,” and “C.” The ii chord is a minor chord, while the V and I are major chords. For a more in depth explanation of how these 3 chords are constructed, visit the post about ii-V-I jazz chord progressions.
Now most of the time you’ll see (and play) these chords with an added 7th. So let’s add a 7th to each chord and see what we’ve got.Now let’s look closely at each chord.
The ii7 Chord
The ii7 (in any major key) is a “minor seventh chord,” sometimes called a “minor-minor seventh.”
It consists of a minor 3rd, a perfect 5th, and a minor 7th.
In this case it’s a d minor 7th.
The chord symbol can be written in a number of different ways, but usually as “dm7” “d min7” or “d-7”
The V7 Chord
The V7 (in any major key) is a “dominant seventh chord,” also called a “major-minor seventh.”
It consists of a major 3rd, a perfect 5th, and a minor 7th
In this case it’s a G dominant seventh.
The chord symbol is usually written “G7” – so whenever you see a “7” written after the chord letter, without any reference to “major” or “minor,” it always means the chord is a dominant seventh chord.
The I7 Chord
The I7 (in any major key) is a “major seventh chord,” also called a “major-major seventh.”
It consists of a major 3rd, a perfect 5th, and a major 7th
In this case it’s a C Major seventh.
The chord symbol is usually written “C Major7″ or C Maj7”
Oftentimes a major 6th chord is used as the I chord, in lieu of the Major 7th.
It’s simply a major triad with an added major 6th.
The chord symbol (in this case) is written as “C Maj6” or just “C6.”
Oftentimes a V7, instead of resolving to a I7, will resolve instead to a minor 7th chord having the same root as that I7. Here’s an example
You can see above that we begin with a ii7 and V7 in the key of D (e min7 and A7). But instead of resolving to a I7 in the key of D (D Maj7) it instead resolves to a ii7 in the key of C (d min7). It then continues in the key of C with a V7 that resolves to a I7 (d min7 – G7 – C Maj7)
You will frequently see this harmonic pattern at the end of the chorus of a tune (for example, bars 11 and 12 in a 12 bar blues). This is called a “turnaround” as it wraps up the end of a chorus with the harmonies “turning around” to lead back into the beginning of the next chorus.
Another (and possibly, more popular) way to look at this progression would be as a iii7 – VI7 – ii7 – V7 in the key of C.
But the VI7 in C would be an A minor 7th chord. By changing the C to a C# we get a dominant 7th chord built on the A. Personally, I prefer to think of these 2 chords in this context (e min7 – A7) as a temporary ii7 – V7 “cell” in the key of D, resolving to a ii7 – V7 in the key of C.
ii7 – V7 – I7 Sequences
It’s not uncommon to see a chord sequence where there’s a ii7 – V7 – I7, and then in the next phrase (1 or 2 bar), the root of the last I7 becomes the root of a ii7 in the next ii7 – V7 – I7 progression in the key 1 whole step lower – just like in the turnaround shown above, except that the V7 does resolve to the I7, which becomes the ii7 in the next bar.
My favorite example of this is the bridge section to the tune “Cherokee.” This is in the key of Bb, the key in which it’s most commonly played.
So we see a ii7 – V7 – I7 “cell” in the key of B (extending over 2 bars), and then in A, then G, and finally a regular turnaround from F to Bb.
Jazz Improvisation Exercises
Now that we’ve discussed the ii7 – V7 – I7 progression, a good next step is to go over to your piano (or other keyboard instrument) and play the progression.
I suggest you begin with a simple d min7 – G7 – C7. Play it slowly, and listen closely. Get that sound in your ear.
Next, try playing a simple turnaround like the e min7 – A7 – d min7 – G7 – CMaj7. Once again, play slowly and listen. This is a chord progression you’ll hear and play over and over again, so learn to hear it well.
When you get to the point that you can “hear” that progression in your brain (without playing it) take a shot at the “Cherokee” bridge changes.
Spend some time on these exercises. The goal is not to become a skilled pianist (unless of course, piano is your instrument) but to learn these chord progressions and how they sound.
Beg, Borrow, or Steal Some “Licks”
Now it’s time to begin creating a personal “repertoire” of ii7 – V7 – I7 licks (i.e. short musical patterns) you can use in your improvisation. As you do so, I strongly recommend you take out a piece of manuscript paper and write them down!
No need to write them in every key… just pick one key (I would use “C” to keep it simple) and write them down to refer back to.
But where can you get ii7 – V7 – I7 licks?
* Listen to other musicians and “steal” them.
* Create your own
Start by simply playing the notes of the chords.
Play them over a 2 bar phrase, playing the ii7 for 2 beats, then the V7 for 2 beats, landing on one of the notes of the I7 in the next bar.
Now experiment with mixing up the notes of the chords.
* Start on notes other than the root
* Mix up the chord tones
* Add some diatonic and/or chromatic passing tones
* Add some altered tones (#5, b5, b9, #9)
Here’s a neat trick I think you’ll find helpful. By landing on a “Guide Tone” on beat 3 of your lick (i.e. the V7 chord) you can begin to “mix and match” beats 1 and 2 of your licks (over the ii7 chord) with beats 3 and 4 (over the V7 chord) of other licks.
But what are “Guide Tones“? Guide tones are the 3rd and 7th of a chord. The 3rd is what determines whether a chord is major or minor, and the 7th determines whether a major chord is “dominant.”
For instance, let’s look at some chords built on “C.”
Now generally speaking, when playing a ii7 – V7 – I7 lick, it’s often good to land on the 3rd or 7th of the V7 (on beat 3), which helps to delineate the chord structure.
Now let’s look at 3 possible licks.
Now because the 3rd beat of each lick lands on a B – that is, the 3rd degree of the V7 chord, you can take beats 1 and 2 of any of these licks, and combine them with beats 3 and 4 of any other, creating a new lick.
In fact, as you memorize, and PLAY the licks you’ve created, I think you’ll find yourself doing this instinctively, without even having to think about it.
Continue to create more ii7 – V7 – I7 licks in which beat 3 lands on the 3rd of the V7 chord. Organize these into a group.
Now do the same by aiming for the 7th of the V7 chord on beat 3. Organize these into another group, and repeat the exercise.
The guide tones are very “strong” notes in the V7 chord. But some of the altered tones are also good to aim for, including the flat 9th, sharp 9th, and sharp 5th. Experiment with some of these and, as before, organize each of these into their own group.
In time, you’ll instinctively combine 2 bar snippets of your licks in which you aim for a strong tone of the V7 chord, on beat 3. Over time you should amass quite repertoire.
Playing Your Licks Over a Dominant 7th Chord
Now let’s suppose that you’re reading chord changes in 4/4 meter, and instead of seeing a bar of ii7 – V7, you see an entire bar of the V7 only. Because the ii7 has some notes in common with the V7, oftentimes the ii7 – V7 licks you’ve learned will work just fine over the 4 beats of the V7.
This will not always be the case, but often is.
Notice in the example above, the first 4 notes – F, A, D, and C are the notes of the d min7 (ii7 in the key of C). But the F and D are also notes in the G7 (the 7th and 5th respectively), the A is the 9th of a G7 (we are very accustomed to hearing 9th chords in jazz harmony), and the C functions as a passing tone.
Time to Go “Global”!
OK, now that you’ve learned the ii7 – V7 – I7 progression, memorized how it sounds, and began creating and memorizing a number of licks to use in your improvisations, you’ve really gotten off to a good start.
Hopefully, you’ve written down all your jazz licks so far, in a key you’ve chosen. Now the next step is to learn your licks in EVERY key!
If you feel the need to write them out, then go ahead, but I think it much better to just transpose them mentally. After all, your goal is to not have to rely on the written notes, but to pull them out of your head as you need them.
But you might be asking… “In EVERY key? Why? How many jazz tunes have you ever heard in keys like E, B, or Gb etc.?”
Well, none actually. But many tunes will stray far from their primary key, especially within the bridge section. Let’s look again at “Cherokee.”
It’s usually played in Bb, one of the 2 “easiest” keys for most of us. But look again at the changes in the bridge…
The bridge begins with a ii7 – V7 – I7 in the keys of B, and then A. Not many jazz tunes (if any) are written in those 2 keys, but hey – if you want to play Cherokee, you had better know them!
I hope I’ve stressed the importance of learning the ii7 – V7 – I7 progression. But if you have any doubts, just open up any “Fake Book” and look at the chord progressions.
‘Nuff said 🙂
Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed and learned something for the post.
Now it’s time to get busy practicing… but first, please leave a comment!