What are some common progressions for Jazz improvisation?

I have been playing with ii-V-I and variations -- what are some others? Is the answer here just to really dig through standards until I've 'internalised' this stuff a little better?

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    This question shouldn't have been closed. Voted to reopen. Perhaps could do with an edit to remove the "Is the answer.." bit, but the op is clearly asking for common jazz chord progressions which are not variations of a ii-v-i.
    – Bella
    Jun 18, 2011 at 22:51
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    @Ben - "improvising" - The question has some substance, the rationale would be that the op knows ii-v-i progressions and variations thereof, and would like to progress from that and add something more to his playable repertoire. The goal obviously isn't that apparent and could be worded much better, but its there nonetheless. This question doesn't qualify as a "blatantly off-topic question", therefore it shouldn't have been closed, at least not without some flags or general community disagreement.
    – Bella
    Jun 19, 2011 at 7:40
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    I think this is an acceptable question; if we can have questions about a composer's or era's style, why can't we have questions about specific chord progressions that are common in a genre. An answer could talk about 12-bar blues, rhythm changes (and variants), other contrafacts, alternative turnarounds, etc. Seems like a decent question to me (at least as it currently stands in its edited form). Jun 19, 2011 at 16:38
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    @Ben one of the reasons for closing is a word you misread? Nice job. Jun 20, 2011 at 13:01
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    @Ben - example of a similar and inherently answerable question. music.stackexchange.com/q/1024/149
    – Bella
    Jun 20, 2011 at 18:39

3 Answers 3


There are, of course, an enormous variety of chord progressions used in jazz. That said, here are three you should know:

12-bar Blues

The basic 12-bar blues as played in jazz (not as played in blues) usually goes something like:


In blues, all these chords would be dominant sevenths. Jazz players, however, frequently play their diatonic versions.

Common variations include replacing the chords in a given bar with a ii-V cadence that resolves to the chord in the next bar. For example, you could replace the I in bar 4 with a ii-V that resolves to the IV in bar 5.

Rhythm Changes

Rhythm Changes is a progression based around the chords of the popular Gershwin tune "I Got Rhythm". It's in the usual 32-bar AABA format, and the traditional key is Bb:

A section: BbM7 Gm7 | Cm7 F7 | BbM7 Gm7 | Cm7 F7 | Fm7 Bb7 | EbM7 Edim | Cm7 F7 | Bb7 turnaround |
B section: D7 D7 | D7 D7 | G7 G7 | G7 G7 | C7 C7 | C7 C7 | F7 F7 | F7 F7 |

These changes are so popular among jazz musicians in large part because they offer myriad opportunities for variation. You can substitute to your heart's content here and find different ways to navigate the same basic structure. Here are some common substitution ideas.

Coltrane Changes

Like a challenge? Try this on for size. I recommend reading this Wikipedia article, which does a better job of explaining the ideas behind the so-called "Coltrane Changes" (as most famously used in "Giant Steps") than I could do.


If it is not yet part of your "II-V-I" variations, you want to learn about the tritonic substitution concept, which consists in changing a V7 chord in a progression with a bII7 chord. The interval between V and bII is 3 tones == 1 tritone == diminished 5th == augmented 4th. The progressing IIm7 -> bII7 -> IM7 adds some nice chromaticity opportunities.

Try practising the minor II-V-I (II-7b5, V7 with b9, #9 #11, b13, Im (with nice extensions such as m69, mM7).

Bebop sound with IVm7 bVII7 IM7.


I doubt you're talking about Traditional Jazz (before Swing, Big Band, and other more modern styles), and I know it's kinda late for answering this, but I thought I should add a very typical occurrence in that style.

I - III7 - VI7 - II7 - V7 - I

One example is the Basin Street Blues which for Bb instruments goes similarly to this:

C - E7 - A7 * - D7 - G7 - C

(* Yes, the A7 briefly goes to Bb7 and then back, but I'm ignoring this for simplicity's sake).

Basically, starting with the second chord, every chord is the V7 of the next chord until you're back at I (e.g. E7 is V7 for A, etc.).

It can make your life pretty interesting when you're playing in C and all of a sudden encounter a chord with 4 #'s (one of which is ignored for the 7).

This exists in a number of variations where you go I - III7 or I - VI7 or I - II7 and then continues from there, and this type of sequence may be inserted in various locations in the chord structure, but once you are in one of these sequences, they nearly always follow that same principle back to the I.

  • interesting - I hadn't seen this progression structure
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Sep 6, 2013 at 10:19
  • I don't know where the guitar tabs suddenly came from (I didn't enter those)... Anyway, I just spent a week down in New Orleans for a Traditional Jazz Camp and must have played about 50 different songs, and at least 15-20 of them probably have one variation or another of this progression with at least the last three chords present (II7 - V7 - C). For this version, there's also the variation of getting to the II from the IV, usually later in the chord structure. Also a lot of diminished chords in Traditional Jazz. Sep 6, 2013 at 20:41
  • Found a link with more examples for this structure: playing-traditional-jazz.blogspot.com/2013/01/… - the song All Of Me (some of you may actually know this one) has a minor chord in there, but the principle is the same. Sep 6, 2013 at 20:47

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