Why is a 2-5-1 progression so often associated with JAZZ?? Is there something inherent in this progression that makes it sound jazzy? Or rather, is it just that jazz people started to use it, experience and re-experience it, and lean on it until it just became part of what jazz is?


To understand the prevalence of the ii-V-I in jazz, there are three good places to look: ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, and blues.


Ragtime was characterized by something called the "Ragtime Progression":

| (V7/V/V/V) | V7/V/V | V7/V | V7 | I |

or more simply:

| III7 | VI7 | II7 | V7 | I |

In the key of C major, this progression is:

| E7 | A7 | D7 | G7 | C |

The first line illustrates the "centripetal" movement around the circle of fourths. In other words, each chord serves a dominant (V) function which leads to the next V chord. But even beyond this, the ragtime progression was interesting to people like Scott Joplin because of the possibility it opened for chromatic movement in the voice-leading, in the melodies, etc. Ragtime composers were so interested in exploring those possibilities that the III7-VI7-II7-V7-I progression became a hallmark of ragtime.

Tin Pan Alley

Then in the early 1900s, songwriters like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin came onto the scene. Their music was often referred to as Tin Pan Alley, and their songs were so influential that they form something called the Great American Songbook. These songs are still played with impressive frequency today in jazz. As it turns out, these composers were heavily influenced by ragtime:

The first generation of Tin Pan Alley composers was obsessed with ragtime and its musical and commercial possibilities. They were also interested in repackaging the instrumental ragtime compositions that Scott Joplin and his colleagues had developed as the foundation for their own novelty songs. The decade of Tin Pan Alley's rise, the 1910s, might be usefully marked off by the debut of Irving Berlin's “Alexander Ragtime Band” in 1911 on one end, and George and Ira Gershwin's “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” in 1918. (p. 3 of http://www.lfpl.org/mylibraryu/pdf/Session_Two_Materials.pdf)

Given the massive influence of these Tin Pan Alley composers and the endurance of their songs, the II-V-I progression would forever become an integral part of jazz harmony. But in part because Tin Pan Alley composers often wrote for musicals, their music followed specific forms like AABA, AAB, AB, etc. which each letter (A and B) marking different sections. For variety, these composers used different sections to modulate to different keys. This had two effects: (1) the prevalence of the ii-V-I grew because it's perhaps the easiest/most natural way to modulate, and (2) the ii-V-I became preferred over the II-V-I, partly because the ii-V-I was entirely diatonic and helped establish the new tonal center more quickly.

Blues (and Bebop)

There's a second unique lineage that also explains the prevalence of the ii-V-I. The core 12-bar structure that evolved from blues is something like this (in C):

| C7 | C7 | C7 | C7 |

| F7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

| G7 | F7 | C7 | C7 |

As jazz musicians began using the blues progression, many sought ways to increase its complexity while preserving its original structure. This was especially true of the bebop musicians. People like Charlie Parker were known for adding chords into a song as a way to enable more complex melodies and improvisations. The easiest ways to add in extra chords are: (1) add the V7 chord in front of any "orphaned" I chords, and (2) add the ii chord in front of any "orphaned" V7 chords. The result is an explosion of ii-V and ii-V-I progressions in bebop music. For example, many bebop musicians have taken the blues structure above and modified it this way:

| C7 | Bø E7alt | Amin D7 | Gmin C7 |

| F7 | F7 | C7 | Emin A7 |

| Dmin | G7 | C7 A7 | Dmin G7 |

All we've done here is add additional V7 chords and ii chords. This procedure of adding ii-V7 chords quickly spilled over into many other songs that didn't have the blues structure. And this simply increased the prevalence of the ii-V-I even more.

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One reason the ii V7 I progression is associated with jazz is that jazz developed alongside the music of the Great American Songbook. The tunes in the Great American Songbook are written using ii V7 I progressions and move through different keys.

Jazz musicians started improvising over these tunes, and then began writing new heads over the existing progressions. For example, many jazz tunes (such as Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and Sonny Rollins' Oleo) are written over the changes to "I got Rhythm" and the Miles Davis tune "Dig" is written over the changes to "Sweet Georgia Brown." There are many such examples. They also took the ii V7 I concept and re-wrote the blues progression to make use of it. It probably made things more interesting for the musicians and the audience.

As a consequence, many jazz tunes written in the 30's 40's and 50's utilized the ii V7 I progression.

Notably, many modal tunes do not utilize the ii V7 I progression. Miles Davis' tune "So What" is a good example of this. So at a certain point jazz musicians began to move away from the ii V7 I progression. The resulting sound is arguably more open and free, but is also more challenging for players to create truly interesting solos over modal tunes.

At any rate, the ii V7 I progression continues to be a very important element of jazz.

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    Notably, many modal tunes do not utilize the ii V7 I progression : We needn't look to the rise of modal jazz to find numerous jazz tunes that are not grounded in ii V7 I: Jazz players from the start have used blues forms that are based in I-IV-V...etc, not ii V7 I. – Stinkfoot Jan 11 '18 at 3:35
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    Let's not forget in all of this that the jazz tradition developed in a world steeped the European common harmonic practice, in which the progression iii-vi-ii7-V7-Iwas a venerable practice. Yes, jazz, & its antecedents & offshoots, are different beasts from European art music, but the fact that there was much parallel development & cross-influence cannot be ignored. – Dean Ransevycz Jan 12 '18 at 3:46
  • @DeanRansevycz, agreed; this is certainly part of the explanation. I think another part of the explanation lies in the question: why did jazz so heavily utilize that particular practice instead of a different practice in Western classical music? – jdjazz Jan 12 '18 at 20:37

Not specifically jazz, but a lot of music seems to work along the lines of ' a chord, up a fourth, up another fourth'. Often that last harmony is the tonic, thus - ii - V - I

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What @Tim answered.

In addition, and by no means a contradiction:

ii-V7-I follows the circle of 5ths : F-Bb-Eb is ii-V7-I, etc. So ii-V7-I facilitates logical, systematic, fluid movement in melodies and improvisation, as you work through circle of 5ths. (Sometimes it's referred to as the Circle of 4ths, particularly when moving up the scale counter-clockwise - the flat direction.)

Listen to how jazz soloists so often build their solos in ii-V7-I tunes - you'll hear that an important component in the musical motion comes from climbing up and down through the notes connecting the scales of the Circle, lingering a bit and exploring the new scale/chord, and then moving on to the next one. That makes the music flow in an engaging and pleasing manner.

At the root of it all in terms of jazz's history is that the jazz repertoire in its early days was comprised to a large extent of popular tunes - tin pan ally, vaudeville/show tunes, etc - generally known today as Standards. Those tunes were used as the framework for jazz improvisation, and those tunes made ample use of the ii-V7-I progression, for the reasons stated - it sounds good, and works well theoretically speaking. Thus ii-V7-I became integral to the jazz lexicon.

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    Weren't you ever told at school never to copy someone else's work?!! And the ii is more likely, but not always, going to be Fm - it fits diatonically, too. – Tim Sep 30 '17 at 9:51
  • Small quibble: although you can call ii-V-I a circle of fifths, it's less confusing if you call it a circle of fourths as the intervals are in fact perfect fourths. – pro Jan 11 '18 at 0:30
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    @pro - circle of fourths as the intervals are in fact perfect fourth certainly. But it is most commonly known as the circle of fifths , thus my language. From my illustration it is clear we are moving in the flat direction. I added a parenthetic remark to the answer now, reflecting your comment. – Stinkfoot Jan 11 '18 at 3:23
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    @pro, I'm also familiar with the way Stinkfoot has described it. The circle of fifths is a circle, and you can move around the circle in either direction. The intervals F to Bb to Eb are fifths if you go down in pitch rather than up. – jdjazz Jan 12 '18 at 0:48
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    @jdjazz - if you go down in pitch rather than up - Good point. And since in that case we're going counter-clockwise , we should be going down in pitch rather than up, if we treat it like a clock - so it is always the circle of 5ths . – Stinkfoot Jan 12 '18 at 0:58

That's rather an opinion-based question! It's not specifically associated with jazz. A whole lot of popular music makes great use of ii, V, I or an even more expanded 'cycle of 5ths' sequence. (And the rest of it is based on the Blues ;-)

A whole lot of later-period jazz ignores 'functional' harmony altogether and noodles around modally on progressions like Am9, Gm9 repeated continually.

Instruction books on jazz improvisation do tend to overdose on ii, V, I sequences in all the keys, maybe because it IS such a common pattern in mainstream songs.

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    This seems to be a comment more than an answer. – Stinkfoot Jan 11 '18 at 16:44

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