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Jazz Blues Chord Progressions

February 21, 2009

Welcome to this lesson on jazz blues chord progressions. The blues form is often one of the first things we learn when we pick up an instrument and chances are you will have heard a standard blues progression played many times before. The blues is a very common structure in jazz and thousands of songs have been written around the blues form.

A jazz blues is similar to a regular blues progression but it uses more complex chord substitutions to create a more interesting harmony. One reason for the popularity of the blues structure is that it is easy to improvise over and has become a standard way for musicians to warm up at jam sessions. If you play in a jazz group for any length of time, then changes are you will be asked to play a blues at some stage.

Before you start to learn a jazz blues, you will need to get familiar with the sound and feel of the basic blues chord progression. The blues has a very unique sound and structure to it, repeating every 12 bars instead of the normal 16 you hear in most other songs. You may often hear people talk about playing a twelve bar blues and this is where the name comes from. The most basic of all blues progressions contains only three chords which are the I, IV and V chord and usually all three chords are dominant. The fact that all of the chords in a blues are dominant is very unusual in terms of music theory. The blues tends to be more about feeling than anything else. A typical blues chord progression is made up of 12 bars and would usually look something like this:

I | I | I | I

IV | IV | I | I

V | IV | I | I

The most obvious way to play over this standard blues progression would be to use the blues scale through the whole thing. If we translate the blues progression above into the key of F, we get the following basic blues sequence:

F7 | F7 | F7 | F7

Bb7 | Bb7 | F7 | F7

C7 | Bb7 | F7 | F7

Notice that all the chords in a standard blues progression are dominant seven chords. You could play the F blues scale through all of the chords in this blues sequence. You can play a blues sequence in any key, but the most popular key choices for jazz musicians tend to be F, Bb and Eb while rock blues progressions tend to be in the keys of E, A, G or D.

Jazz Blues Chord Progression

Jazz musicians quickly grew tired of just playing the blues scale over this progression and tried to find new ways to make the standard blues more interesting harmonically. The sequence below shows you how a jazz musician might adapt the standard blues sequence to make it more interesting harmonically:

F7 | B7 | F7 | F7

Bb7 | Bb7 | F7 | D7alt

Gm7 | C7 | F7 | C7

Notice the use of the ii – V in bar 9 and 10 and the use of the altered chord in bar 8. Now we have a jazz blues progression that is much more interesting harmonically and allows us to create more interesting melodic ideas when improvising.

You could add in a tritone substitution for this progression by replacing the D7 altered chord with an Ab7 chord which would give you the following chord progression:

F7 | B7 | F7 | F7

Bb7 | Bb7 | F7 | Ab7

Gm7 | C7 | F7 | C7

There are an almost unlimited array of things you can do with a jazz blue sequence, including tritone substitutions and more ii – V sequences. Jazz players during the bebop era took the jazz blues chord progression to the extreme and created ever more elaborate chord sequences. Here is a set of changes used by Charlie Parker in the tune Blues for Alice”.

Fmaj7 | Em7b5 A7b9 | Dm7G7 | Cm7 F7

Bb7 | Bm7 Eb7 | Am7 D7 | Abm7 Db7

Gm7 | C7 | Fmaj7 D7alt | Gm7 C7

I hope you enjoyed this lesson on jazz blues chord progressions. Every musician should take care to learn the blues sequence because you will come across it so often during your musical career. If you ever turn up to a jam session then understand the blues chord sequences is an essential skill. Good luck and enjoy playing these jazz blues sequences in different keys.

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