A Handy Framework for Jazz Standard Harmony

NOTE: As a Jazz player you should already be familiar with Cycle of 5ths, Secondary Domi-nants, b5 Substitution (Tritone Substitution), Chord Quality (Chord Type), Parallel Minors and Parallel Modes. If not look ‘em up pronto!

Chords can move in many ways. Resolution by half step, common tone sharing and symmetrics are but a few. Much of the music in the ‘American Song Book’ (the Jazz Standards) how-ever, tends to use harmony from the Classical/Romantic periods – harmony that often relies on the resolution of the half-step. You’ll find that players who have hundreds of standards committed to memory tend to have a framework to base their ‘Common Practice’ chord progressions on. More often than not, this consists of some combination of the Cycle of 5ths, Chord Quality alteration, b5 Substitution, and the various resolutions of the Dim7 chord. So let’s take a look at this framework. For the time being, we’ll stick strictly to the Major Key.

The harmonies found here all sound very ‘inside.’ They are, however, the basis of hundreds of standards and the starting point for all reharmonization and the more ‘outside’ harmony that follows.


The most common chord movement in Jazz Standard harmony involves the CYCLE OF 5THS. Progression in the following table can flow both ways but Left to Right tends to be ‘with the current,’ giving the feeling that you ‘flow’ downstream while you ‘work at’ moving upstream. This psychological effect is used constantly in chord progressions.


Chords in the key are often altered to (dominant) 7th chords to create forward motion and/or imply another key center. These are called SECONDARY DOMINANTS.

Chords can also alter their CHORD QUALITY; for example: Em7 to E7. Although this isn’t re-ally a ‘chord progression’ as such (the root remains the same), it is used constantly. While all chord types are available, the majority of chords change from the Secondary Dominant version to the ‘natural’ version and vice-versa. Check out the different methods of moving ‘downstream’ through the cycle: left to right, diagonally, up and down and all combinations of the above.


The number of possibilities available as you move through the entire cycle ends up being astronomical. And that doesn’t even include periodically ‘backing up’ (moving ‘upstream’) for a period of time, e.g.:

A common substitute for the V7 chord in a IIm7, V7, I is the bII7; for example, in the Key of C Major: Dm7, Db7, C. This is called a FLAT FIVE SUBSTITUTION. The G7 and the Db7 share the tritone (B and F) – reinforcing their functional relationship.


The chord movement is still Left to Right, Diagonal and Up and Down and Any Combination but the possibilities are greatly magnified by the extra line of b5 subs.

Another common harmonic tool is the use of BORROWED CHORDS. These are chords borrowed from the Parallel Modes and/or Parallel Minors. One of the functions of this is to lend the sound of that mode and its emotional content to the progression, e.g. Dm7b5 G7 C where the Dm7b5 is borrowed from the Key of C minor.

All of the “Tonal Modes” are available for this purpose (Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian and Aeolian) as well as the Parallel Minors (Harmonic and Ascending Melodic Minors sharing the same Tonic as the Major Key scale). When substituted, these chords have an emotional and/or functional effect on the song. A chord that may have had a Subdominant Function, may end up having a Dominant Function depending on the substitution!

Any chord in the same column is available as a BORROWED CHORD when creating a progression for a song.


NOTE: Whereas the flow is still ‘downstream and upstream’, the change of chord quality and possible function requires you handle these carefully, e.g.: an Dm7b5 in place of Dm7 now has a Dominant function, and is perfectly happy moving directly to C major! Generally speaking, a high percentage of chord progressions found in the Jazz Standards are simply different ways of moving through the expanded cycle of 5ths we have looked at here. All kinds of modifications can take place on these chords, from building up to the 13th to adding multiple altered notes to dominant 7th chords. The FUNCTION, however, can always be found in the basic four note chord.

We will be looking at a few Standards and applying these ideas shortly, but first we have to take a look at one of the most influential chords in Classic/Romantic harmony: The Diminished 7th – its structure, resolutions, and substitutions.