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Jazz Part 1


This is the first part in a series of articles where I will explain how to take a simple melody and turn it into a jazz tune, complete with appropriate harmony, voicing, bass part, and notation for a session or performance. I will explain and demonstrate the basic concepts of jazz. These are the cheat notes that even a drummer should be able to understand (I should know, I am one).

Part 1 deals with the melody, harmony, and piano voicing. Part 2 explains how to take the melody and voice it in a Thickened Line style for a big band saxophone section. Part 3 explains how to come up with simple and effective bass parts and how to notate your charts. Finally, Part 4 will introduce a new tune that requires some more techniques but will also serve as a complete example of everything covered in the previous sections.

I would like to thank Mike Barry for this idea and Cinesamples for funding the recording of the saxophones and rhythm section. Jeff Vaughn for recording and mixing. Chris Lennertz and everybody at Sonic Fuel for the studio. Noah Gladstone and Hollywood Scoring for contracting and AFM Local 47 for working with us to find a contract to make the recording possible.

Part 1
Melody, Chords, and Voicing

Here is a simple melody. Something that someone who is not a jazz musician might come up with if they were called upon to write some jazz!


Pretty straight-forward. Think of this as the first phrase of a longer tune. Now lets harmonize it in a traditional way using chords I, IV, and V.

A Piano

Apart from the swing rhythm, the other thing that will make this ‘jazz’ is that every chord will have an extra note. The default addition is the 7th. If we add a diatonic 7th to each of these chords we get-

B Piano

When you listen to this, it does start to sound jazzy, but it is pretty lame due to the thick (low and cluttered) voicing. The default way to address this is to take out the 5th in each chord. The most important notes in a jazz voicing are the 3rd and 7th, which are often referred to as the guide tones. The third defines the tonality of the chord, and the 7th determines its function.

The ii – V – I
Adding notes from the C major scale, the I chord becomes a major 7th, IV also a major 7th, and V a dominant 7th. While classical and pop harmony is often based around the I – IV – V progression, the basis of jazz and the most important progression to know about and use is the ii – V – I. So we substitute a ii for the IV. While our progression stays in the tonic key center, you can use a ii – V or just a V to modulate to any temporary tonic. It is the same concept as in four part chorale writing. The Coltrane tune Giant Steps took this concept to its extreme.

C Piano v2


Now we have ‘jazz’! All of the elements, melody, harmony and voicing, are ‘correct’ for the jazz genre.

We can, however, make things a little more interesting. The next thing would be to fill in another chord in the first measure. The default way to do this is to go a fifth above the next chord. The next chord is ii, so the fifth that leads there is vi. Now we have I, vi, ii, V (I). This is one of the most common progressions in jazz and is the foundation of ‘Rhythm Changes’ (the chords in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” that have been used as the basis for 1000’s of other tunes).

F Piano v2

The 6th Chord
There is an alternative for our I chord, and that is a 6th chord, in which an A replaces the B.

C6 Cm6

In any tonic chord, major or minor, you can substitute the 6th for the 7th. This gives a softer, some might say older, sound. There is no major 7 (or minor 2nd) in the voicing, so less of a ‘grind’ (jazz speak for good dissonance). This is also very common when the melody is the tonic (so a C in this case, see example K). This prevents the major 7th from rubbing against the tonic at the top of the voicing. In general, for a normal jazz sound, you avoid a minor 2nd at the top of a voicing. In more modern styles, this is not a problem. A major 2nd is OK if the melody is voiced in the low- to mid-range, but as you get higher, it is always best to have a 3rd or more as your top interval. For normal jazz sounds, I personally try to avoid all 2nds at the top. 2nds at the top of trumpet voicings often sound like someone ‘missed’!

I find the minor 6 chord underused these days. Check out Summertime, or the bridge to the Pink Panther for some classic uses.

G Piano v2

So far we have kept each chord to just one added note, the 7th. Once you have mastered this it is time to add some more. The next note to add is the 9th. Just as we added the 7th by going up the scale of the key, we do the same with the 9th. This gives a little more spice to the harmony. Adding the 9th is pretty much done automatically by most jazz musicians. It is always implied and will be often added even if it is not in the chord symbol. Spelling out all the 9ths in these examples is for academic purposes; in the real world, I would write the chords as in example F, knowing the player would add the 9ths. Of course there are higher and altered extensions that add even more color, but I will save them for another day.

Substitutions and Passing Chords
Now we will look at adding some interest by using substitutions and passing chords. You can see in the third bar, the A minor chord has been replaced by a C# diminished 7th chord. As you will see with all of our substitutions and passing chords, there are often several explanations.
H Piano v2


As I mentioned above, you can pretty much precede any chord with the chord a 5th above. You have the option of making it diatonic or changing it to a dominant chord and making it a temporary dominant. In our case, we could have made the A minor 7th chord an A dominant 7th.


A trick to remember is that when the tonic (or temporary tonic) chord is minor, you can nearly always use a flat 9 on the V chord before it. So in our case we could use A7(b9) as our D minor tonic Harmonic minor scale has a Bb in it. If we leave the root (A) out of this chord, we end up with a diminished 7th chord. This is a really common substitution.


Look at bar 4 (Example H). There is now an Ab augmented 9th chord harmonizing the E. The E in this case is fine harmonized by the D minor chord, but by reharmonizing it with a passing chord (a chord that harmonizes a note that is passing between two chord tones) we create some nice movement.

Just as our new chord in bar 3 is based on the temporary dominant concept, so is this one. We could change the D minor on the downbeat to a D7 but that would be a bigger color change than I want here. Where the D7 can come in handy is to harmonize the E. The E is the 9th. This would work fine, but a quick V-I can be a little clunky, we need a way to smooth it out. Enter the tritone substitution.

Tritone Substitution

As already mentioned, the most important notes in any chord are the 3rd and the 7th. You can vary everything else and still keep the function intact. The 3rd and 7th in our D7 chord are F# and C. These can be voiced in any order; the F# does not always have to be under the C to keep its function. There is another chord that shares these same notes as its 3rd and 7th, though their positions are reversed: Ab7.
The same tritone (C and F#/Gb) exists in the chord whose root is a tritone away, and can function the same as in the original chord. Another cool thing with this is that it gives us a chromatic movement in the bass, a nice variation on the standard V-I and a much smoother sound when moving fast.

In our case, the melody is an E, not a note in a standard Ab7 chord. It is actually the #5 in an Ab augmented 7th chord, and works just as well. You can see that apart from the melody that moves a step into the G7, every other note moves by half step.

A tritone substitution can replace a dominant chord completely or extend it. In our example we are extending.

Melodic Interest
So far we have looked at making additions and improvements to the harmony. Now let’s take a look at the melody and see what can be done to make it a little more interesting.

With any melody, look for places where you can add a chromatic passing tone, either by replacing an existing note or by adding one. In our case, we have a perfect spot. We have a repeated E that moves a whole step to a D, we can change the second E to an Eb and add some nice chromatic passing interest. We can also approach our last D chromatically.
I Piano v2

These new notes do not necessarily need any new harmony, as they resolve by half step and thus sound fine. But seeing as we are heading towards writing a saxophone voicing with a thickened line in Part II, let’s look at how we can harmonize them.

In both cases, the same trick will work. This can be justified as a tritone substitution, but there is a much easier way to think of this example. It is called chromatic planing. Planing is when you take a shape (chord voicing) and move it under the melody retaining its intervallic structure. This can be done diatonically or chromatically. In our case the intervals are locked chromatically so it is a chromatic plane. We keep the shape, and move it under the preceding note. Planing can be one or more movements. If it is just a single movement, it also sometimes called side slipping. You hear guitarists do this all the time as it is very easy to do on the guitar. They slide into any chord from a half step above or below.

You can also use it to go away and back, slip it to the side. If you had a melody that went A, G#, A you could keep the same chord for the a, slip it down for the G# and back to the A. With all of these techniques it is import to think backwards from the resolution.

Another common variation is to substitute a iii in the third measure in place of the I. From there, we can travel the circle of fifths to get back to I (E-A-D-G-C). We can also have some fun with bar two and use a series of tritone substitutions to get to the E minor chord. You will see in this one, I add a bar and resolve the cadence. Notice that I use the 6th in place of the 7th to avoid a minor 2nd at the top of the voicing.

K Piano


If you look at the next to last chord (Db7), you will see it is a tritone substitution, extending the G7 dominant. If you look at the notes, you will see that it is actually a G7 with a Db bass. The chord symbol looks a little scary, but if you think of it as a regular dominant over a tritone substitution bass, it is actually very simple to understand how and why it works.

Here is a video that strings together all of the examples so you can hear and see the development of the harmony.

As you can see, there is no mystery to any of this. There are rules and formulas that get you from example A to example K. We have also now created voicings that would work really well for a string orchestra. You could give the melody to a singer or instrumentalist and the leftover parts would translate perfectly to a string section. The only changes I would make would be to move the top string part to the melody at the end of the phrases. There is a lot of information above, and I would not expect anyone new to jazz to get it all on the first reading, so please take your time and go through it a few times, playing the examples yourself. For further study I recommend The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine, this is the book that helped me first understand how it all works.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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  1. Thank you for this. I would love to compose a Jazz music since I’ve been hooked to this kind of music which sound like an Angel and it is very relaxing. Although I am not a musician but I am willing to try

  2. Tim,
    It’s great that you recommended Mark Levine’s piano book. (Even totally horrible piano players) like me, can appreciate that book. Not only does it show pianists how to play chord voicing, it really is a clever way to understand arranging. If you do not play jazz or even understand it, you can get jump start understanding how things work (not only in jazz, but every most all present day arranging. thanks,

  3. Excellent article! Will follow these steps in future when writing jazz 🙂

  4. Marvelous article, Tim!
    I greatly appreciate your way of “unveiling” the mysteries of jazz! Thank you!!

  5. Hey Tim,

    I am writing a Jazz Christmas album. How should I use this article to make the song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”? sound jazzier? Do you have any more resources that you can recommend for me? I am just starting out writing jazz music. Thanks!


  6. oh my god, it seems what I’m missing in my music skillset, just fear my general musical ability is not enough to fully benefit from this, nor the amount of my free time…

    great stuff though! I’ll get as much as possible from it!

  7. Hi Tim, just discovered your website, and its been like a lightbulb being turned on…thankyou. I have a question; what happens when you only have 3 front line ( trp, ten sax, trombone) how do I decide the most important chord tones to use? Especially when extensions are used ? Also when are parts 3&4 on jazz writing coming out? Can’t find them!!

    Just love your approach to explaining the process, keep it coming please.



    • Hi. Sorry for my delay. I find writing for 3 horns much harder than 13, especially in a jazz situation. A lot of unison is good! If you have a good pianist, you can have them cover parts, lower ones with the guide tones and have the 3 horns play the upper structures and keep their parts more melody. Bill Cunliffe is a pianist and arranger who does this very well. But don’t over think it. If all the lines are good and you have a good rhythms section outlining the harmony it will all sound fine.

      • I find that doubling the top sax (or trumpet) line on guitar adds needed thickness. I also wish I’d discovered this article a year ago when I was muddling through trying to work this all out for myself!

  8. Wonderful job! Thank you!
    Did you write an article to transform a straight melody line to a swing melody line? and how to change the background chords to make a song sound swing/jazzy? (I only need rhythmic examples)

    Thank you

  9. OH thank! i’m 8th graders on a IB international school in china! my music teacher told everybody to compose a jazz song. I had no idea of what am I going to do before reading your article! Thank a lot!

    • GREAT Great Great Great. Since I found you on the internet it has helped me so much.

      Thank you very much for helping us green souls of Jazz. (smile)

  10. Excellent article! So much information presented in such an educational manner!

  11. Thanks Tim, excellent information to help me with my jazz writing. Many Thanks

  12. This is an awesome article on jazz harmony. It really helped me to start off composing some jazz! Thank you for that!!!

  13. Thank you so very much for this easy way to write Jazz. I understand printed into a little better than a video only. I had the info about the chord progression but not how they were to be written. Please tell if what books I can purchase fo arrange for bass, strings, and the horn section for jazz. I am a singer/songwriter. Thank you again Tim.

  14. Hi Tim! I must say that I am very happy to have found your article as I feel that I have learnt more about jazz music and writing for it than I ever did in jazz band during high school. I got a problem though. I’ve been playing classical piano for the last 11 years so chord theory isn’t really my best area. I was confused from the diminished chords and after. What exactly is happening with the diminished chords? Also, I am currently in a duo with my jazz singing friend but am finding it difficult to learn jazz and make the transition from classical. I can’t exactly afford lessons right now so do you have any tips or methods that I could use to help me with my learning?

    • Hi. I like the jazz piano book by Mark Levine. It explains all of the chord types and how to use them. It is where I learnt how jazz harmony works.

    • Hi, I was in a similar situation, starting life as a drummer, I had no idea on how chords really worked. What opened my eyes and ears was the Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine. Grab a copy and go through it, it will really help.

  15. This was a really good refresher for someone already well versed, very well put together article. For me reading theory stuff, it’s all in how the author words things. This was one of the better explanations of jazz harmony I’ve seen. You ever considering writing an orchestration or jazz arranging book?

    • I had wanted to write a book, but would never have the time to cover everything I want to. Also, this format allows me to mix in audio and video, this post being a perfect example. Would be nowhere near as effective in a book.

  16. […] Davies ¬?- jazz part 1, jazz melody and voicing part […]

  17. […] are using the same melody from Part 1, and will go through some of the same harmonic transformations, from simple to more complicated. […]

  18. Love this post – you are one of my heroes Tim.

    One quick question about fonts — what’s the deal with the Ink Pen font? I’ve seen that forever in jazz scores. Is that some kind of tradition in jazz music? I have a good friend from New York, Richie Vitale, very talented jazz trumpet player. I asked him once but forgot what he said, I think he said yes it is.

    • There is a rich history of hand copying in jazz. I feel it just looks ‘right’ to use this look even with computer software. There are several fonts available. The first was the Golden Age font, it is good, but ‘thin’ looking. The next and most popular is Jazz font. I actually hate this one, the numbers are hard to read. The same guy that made that one, then came out with the Swing Font, which has better letters and numbers, that is what I use. But I use the note heads from the jazz font as the whole note in swing is too small. The other program came out with Ink Pen as it’s handwritten font. It is a little messy for my tastes. Finale has now come out with the Broadway font too.

  19. Tim,
    Great blog. Thanks for posting. I’d like to forward to some of my students with your permission.
    Looking forward to your next installment.

  20. Tim, this is Tim (no relation),

    Absolutely fantastic, as a fan of Jazz and a composer (and a guitarist if you must know), I can always appreciate a knowledgeable breakdown of structure (or lack thereof depending on who you’re listening to[!]).


  21. Tim, this is one of the best music related articles I’ve read online. This blog is amazing and I hope you continue to break the magicians code as you put it.

    Really looking forward to more!


  22. As always, solid bloody gold.
    Graham Lloyd

  23. Wonderful information! Subscribed to your website 🙂

    Music theory is something I’m just starting to become more familiar with and while some of the more advanced stuff goes over my head, it’s really enlightening to watch the process in such an iterative form.

  24. This is a good start for anyone who knows nothing about playing or writing jazz but it should be mentioned that, as with any musical form, the EARS are the most important element and the way to train those are by hours of listening. Also note that the 8th notes, even in ex. A, are not played as written but like 8th note triplets with the first 2 tied and the emphasis on the last one. This is called (improperly) swing feel.
    Nevertheless, this is a very well written intro.

    • Yes, good points. I will explain the notation and my thoughts on it in part 3. The reason I laid it out like this is so people can play the examples, either themselves or the audio. I would love to think everyone is going to go away a transcribe a heap of classic tunes and solos, but it is not going to happen. The idea for this was put to me as a guide for a young film/game composer, not someone who wants to be the next Gil Evans. These are cheat notes. Jazz police will not like it, I am breaking the magicians code!

      • Gotcha Tim. And I’m not exactly the JP but one of the magicians. My only code is take what you are doing seriously. You’re doing a great job and I really appreciate you orchestral advice. One of the better blogs!


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