Part 2 – Jazz Harmony

A chord sequence may at first seem a little complicated:-

“Great Masters” chord sequence

but if you follow the sequence shown below while listening to the podcast, counting 8 bars for each ‘chorus’ (once through the 8 bars) you might get the idea that a chord sequence is only a guide for the player’s improvisation.

Jazz Beginnings Tune-up Note

Click here for Tune-Up note [codepeople-html5-media-player id=11]

lst chorus  —   chords only

2nd chorus — improvisation on chords only

3rd chorus — ‘Vivaldi’ bit

4th chorus — ‘Bach’ bit .

5th chorus —  jazz

Jazz Beginnings 12 [codepeople-html5-media-player id=21]

Can you hear that this chord sequence is nothing new?

In fact Vivaldi almost worked it to death in his many concerti and Bach could not have composed the ‘48’ without it.

From the works of Mozart and Beethoven through Schubert

and Brahms to Stravinsky and Copland this harmonic chestnut crops up with unfailing regularity.

If these guys used it, it is worth your while to use it also.

There are 4 main chords used in jazz and they all feature in the ‘Great Masters’ sequence:-

1) MAJOR 7th (Maj 7)

2) DOMINANT 7th                     (7)

3) MINOR 7th                             (m7)

4) MINOR 7th flattened 5th   (m7b5)

Each chord is made up of major or minor 3rds stacked on top of a root. Taking the scale of C major for example and

stacking thirds on top of each note in the scale gives:-

I (CMaj 7th)                       C –  maj 3rd       E – min 3rd        G – maj 3rd       B

II (Dmin7th)                     D – min 3rd       F – maj 3rd         A – min3rd        C

III (Emin7th)                    E – min 3rd       G – maj 3rd         B – min3rd        D

IV (F Maj 7th)                   F – maj 3rd        A – min 3rd        C – maj 3rd        E

V (G dom 7th)                   G – maj 3rd       B – min 3rd        D – min 3rd       F

VI (Amin7th)                    A – min 3rd       C – maj 3rd         E – maj 3rd       G

VII (Bmin7th flat 5th)   B – min 3rd      D – min 3rd         F – maj 3rd       A

Play through the chords and get to know their different sounds.

In any Major scale, therefore, stacking 3rds on top of the ascending bass notes gives the following chords:-

I and IV            Major 7th

II, III and VI   Minor 7th

V                        Dominant 7th

VII                    Minor 7th Flattened 5th

All the examples so far have been in the key of C. You should now play through the 12 MAJOR SCALES stacking

thirds on top of the roots as they come in the key signature. Play them in this order:-

C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E, A, D, G

This may take a little while but as an improviser you must know immediately in your head, heart and hands what

each chord symbol means.

The spelling of each chord in the ‘Great Masters’ sequence looks like this:-

Cm7 –          C          Eb         G          Bb

F7 –              F          A            C          Eb

BbMaj7–   Bb       D            F           A

EbMaj7 –   Eb       G            Bb        D

Am7b5 –    A          C            Eb        G

D7–             D         F#          A          C

Gm7 –         G         Bb          D          F

G7 –             G         B             D          F

Here is the “Great Masters” in staff notation.

Play each chord, starting on the root, one beat to each note, along with the audio podcast. The sequence is played 3 times.


Jazz Beginnings 13 [codepeople-html5-media-player id=22]

Three choruses of the “Great masters”. Sing it as well as playing it!

At this stage you should be able to hear the major and minor thirds in each chord. It is useful to know the

construction of major and minor thirds.

2 notes a Major 3rd apart are separated by 4 semitones

2 notes a Minor 3rd apart are separated by 3 semitones

Vertical Improvisation

Playing up the chords is the first step in ‘vertical’ improvisation (improvisation based on chord structures) but thereis a method for coming down as well. It works like this. Listen to Example 12 where the odd numbered bars go up

and the even numbered bars come down.

Jazz Beginnings 14 [codepeople-html5-media-player id=23]

Three choruses

The notes of each chord going up are:— ROOT, THIRD, FIFTH and SEVENTH.

The notes of each chord coming down ares- THIRD, ROOT, SEVENTH and FIFTH. (Except bar 8)

In the first two chords the seventh of the first ‘falls’ to the third of the next and this pattern is repeated through theprogression. Also the root notes starting with the first chord leap up a fourth and down a fifth through this sequence.

The first three chords make up a II — V — I sequence as the root notes of these chords are on the second, fifth and

first notes of the scale.

This pattern is not static and the same root movement is heard in bars 5, 6 and 7. Therefore, in nearly every casewhere the music modulates (ie changes key) a II – V – I sequence is in there somewhere.

NB  The key signature does not necessarily change as the music moves from key to key. Tunes like ‘All The Things

You Are’, ‘Sophisticated Lady’, ‘Cherokee’, constantly shift key (by a II – V – I of course) but the key signature is

the same throughout.

The next example prepares you for VERTICAL IMPROVISATION. Play each chorus along with the podcast following the directions, using the chords and their inversions. To invert a chord, play the four chord notes ascending starting on the THIRD (a first inversion), F IFTH (second inversion) and SEVENTH (third inversion).

As in last podcast , these chords can also be played descending.

Jazz Beginnings 15 [codepeople-html5-media-player id=24]

lst chorus —    Play bass notes only in semibreves2nd chorus — Play any notes of the chords in minims

3rd chorus —  Play any notes of the chords in crotchets

4th chorus — Play any notes of the chords in quavers

5th chorus —  Play any notes of the chords in triplets

6th chorus — Play any notes of the chords in semiquavers

Use the entire range of your instrument for the above exercise, trying to invent as many different patterns as you can.


A seventh falling to a third from a minor seventh, as in II7 — V7 produces what is known as a GUIDE TONE line.

Guide tones connect up chords to give harmonic flow and an awareness of where they are will give your improvisations a sense of direction.

Another guide tone line can be constructed like this :-

The 3rd of II7 become the 7th of V7.

And Now :-

Four choruses to use any combination of notes and rhythms as you wish.

Hang your improvisations on the guide tones below.

Jazz Beginnings 16 [codepeople-html5-media-player id=25]


The last step is to tackle linear improvisation which is not as complicated as it sounds. Look at it this way:·

The first three chords of the “Great Masters”:-

In between each chord note, fit the note in the key of Bb which separates the thirds and you have:-

You now have the related scale of each chord. The complete sequence with the relevant scale is :-

Note the accidentals in bars 6 and 8. These reflect passing key changes.

Bar 6 is the Dominant 7th leading to bar 7.

Bar 8 is the Dominant 7th leading to bar 1.

Play each scale in the following rhythm along with the podcast below.

Jazz Beginnings 17 [codepeople-html5-media-player id=26]

lst chorus — Scales starting on roots

2nd chorus – scales in this rhythm

3rd & 4th choruses — Scales in any rhythm starting on the guide tones (see before).

NB  Chord and scale notes can be approached by a semitone either way.

Experiment and use what you like best — you will soon discover that any note can fit any chord depending on how

it is used.


Let’s draw breath. You can now play vertical and linear improvisations on the chords and scales of “The Great


How well you do it must be judged for yourself.

This learning programme on the technique of improvisation is just a ‘way in’ to the art of playing jazz.

It is a humbling thought that many of the early great jazz musicians had little idea of theory and technique — but

they did have genius, musicality and originality which did more than a little to balance things up.

Now you can use the technique of improvisation to produce music and not just random wanderings through chords

and scales.

In the tunes that follow in Part 3 – Chord Sequences of this series, use your own creative ability to play Jazz as you want to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *