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How Jazz Musicians Create Harmonic Movement

One of the defining characteristics of jazz is it’s rich harmony. You may have seen this meme floating around social media:

jazz meme

Now as funny as that is, the point made about how many chords a jazz musician plays in comparison to a rock or pop musicians is practically spot on! Obviously there is an exaggeration there, but jazz is in general much more harmonically complex than pop culture music.

Why is harmony so important to a jazz musician? Harmony creates movement. It informs the mood of a song and it can decorate with colors. The harmony informs the soloist what to play or not to play. It informs the soloist what rules exist so they can either be followed or broken. The fuller the harmonic movement, the more options available to the improviser.  Jazz is a very liberal style of music and prefers wide open spaces.

Traditionally, jazz harmony has a lot more harmonic movement going on than some other styles of music. However, jazz harmony to a jazz musician is not necessarily what is written down on paper.  A jazz musician can look at a song, see a set of chord changes and play them, but that doesn’t set the boundaries. A knowledgeable jazz musician will look at harmony and understand that there are many more possibilities than what meets the eye.

As developing jazz musicians we need to understand harmonic possibilities. Until we understand harmony at a much deeper level, we are limited in every other aspect of our jazz playing.

I can think of no better way to start digging in to how a jazz musician expands on harmony than the blues.  Let’s go over some ways that jazz musicians expand on harmony and add to chord progressions in a blues context. But before we do that, I want to make sure we are all familiar with chord qualities by numbers. For some, this will be review, for others this will be necessary to have a basic understanding of this lesson.

Chord Qualities By Numbers Crash Course:

We are going to be using a blues in Bb as an example, and since the tonal center revolves around a dominant chord, we will be using the Bb mixolydian scale to demonstrate what I mean by chord qualities by numbers. Take a look:

mixo scale

Here we have notated a Bb mixolydian scale. Each note in the scale is Roman Numeral numbered below and the quality is shown up top.

So all of the diatonic chords for our Bb blues will be: Bb7-Cm7-Dm7(b5)-Eb7-F7-Gm7-Ab7.

If this chord qualities by number crash course leaves you a little bit confused, hopefully some of the next examples will clarify things further.

Building on a basic blues progression

Here’s a fairly standard 12 bar blues progression. There are no substitutions or alterations here yet, just a simple blues. Take a look:

Standard 12 bar blues

Now lets throw in some Roman Numerals to understand how the chords function in the key of Bb:

Standard 12 Bar Blues Roman Numeral

This standard blues progression is used in many jazz compositions. Freddie Freeloader by Miles Davis has a similar chord progression. However this is where jazz musicians begin to take off harmonically from blues and rock musicians: adding ii-V’s. Take a look at this first alteration:

ii-V-I normal jazz

Circled in red is the change made to the form. Notice that in bars 9 and 10 the V and IV chord are swapped out with a ii-V (Cmin7-F7). The ii-V-I chord progression is easily the most used series of chords in jazz as well as many other types of music. With these changes made, I would call this a basic jazz blues. However, there is another version of these changes that I would say is more common for jazz musicians to play. Take a look at this next set:

Common Jazz Blues

Already the harmony is becoming thicker and full of movement. Consider the additions:

  1. In bar 4, a ii-V of IV is added. I call this ii-V of IV because the Fmin7-Bb7 can be thought of as transitioning into the key of Eb in bar 5. From an improvising perspective it can be helpful to think of them this way rather than thinking of them as in relationship to Bb. The Fmin7 (ii) and the Bb7 (V) are creating movement and momentum into the Eb7 (IV).
  2. In bar 6, a #IV diminished (Edim7) is added. This creates more harmonic movement and tension, and is fairly common to see.
  3. In bar 8, a dominant VI chord is added. This is essentially acting as a V chord going into the Cmin7 in bar 9, creating an urgency for resolution and connection between the Bb7 and the Cmin7. If you look back at our mixolydian scale, you’ll notice the VI chord is normally a minor chord (vi), however it is common for a jazz musician to turn it into a dominant chord usually with an altered note (b9-#9-#5).
  4. In bar 12, a turnaround is added. Most likely, any musician would add some kind of V chord to turn around to the top of the form if it is to be repeated. A jazz musician will often add a ii-V.

I would consider this a more common version of a jazz blues, but of course there is a lot more we can do to this progression! Let’s look at the next set of alterations:

Passing chords and full turnaround

Three things are happening here:

  1. In bar 8, the iii chord (Dmin7) is added to precede the VI chord (G7alt). You could now think of them together as a ii-V of ii going into Cmin7 in bar 9. Once again, you’ll notice that the iii chord is not a half-diminished chord as it normally would be. It’s quite normal to make this iii chord minor. Either are acceptable, but in a blues setting this is most common.
  2. In bar 7, a ii chord (Cmin7) is added on beats 3 & 4. This chord is functioning as a passing chord from the Bb7 to the Dmin7, with movement in whole steps.
  3. In bar 11, a VI dominant chord is added to the turnaround to add more movement, creating a I-VI-ii-V progression.

Let’s look at another realm of possibilities:

Chromatic ii-V

Jazz musicians often utilize chromatic movement. In this example, you notice this happening several times.

  1. On the non-chromatic side of things, a VII chord is added in replacement of the #IV diminished in bar 6. This is another possibility for movement to return home to the Bb7 in bar 7.
  2. In bar 7, you’ll notice the first example of chromatic movement: a #ii diminished acting as a passing chord between the ii and the iii. This is very characteristic of gospel music as well.
  3. In bar 9, a chromatic ii-V is added. This technique is often used to connect two different diatonic ii-V’s, in this case, Dmin7-G7 in bar 8 and Cmin7-F7 in bar 10.
  4. Lastly, in bar 12 there is a Gb7 replacing the ii chord to create a chromatic movement of dominant chords in the turnaround. Essentially, the Gb7 is acting as a tritone substitution for the Cmin7.

Bird Blues vs. Regular Blues

Now, I know all of this is a lot of information and a lot of possibilities (though there is much more we could do)! I would recommend going through and trying all of them out yourself. But I want to leave you with one more eye opening example of how jazz musicians take a chord progression and expand upon it to create more direction and movement.

Since we are dealing with the blues, the best example of this is the way Charlie Parker transformed the blues in his compositions such as Blues For Alice and Chi Chi. We call this progression a “Bird Blues”. The example below shows a regular jazz blues in the top staff and a Bird Blues in the bottom staff. The yellow highlights are the target chords. Notice how bird always hits the target chords, and notice the difference and similarities between the two blues progressions:

Regular vs Bird


A good jazz musician has an extensive knowledge of harmony and how to us it in different musical situations. Once you understand these different possibilities, it can really open up your comping and soloing!

Those interested in seeing how John Coltrane added his own harmonic structures into jazz standards, check out Understanding Coltrane Changes Part 2.

-Brent Vaartstra

To learn more about this author, visit

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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