Michael McClimon

Jazz Harmony, Transformations, and ii–V Space

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 2014

Update: This paper is now an article! It was published in Music Theory Online 23.1 as “Transformations in Tonal Jazz: ii-V Space”.


Studies of jazz harmony in recent years have primarily taken the form of Schenkerian analyses that seek to uncover large-scale voice-leading structures to define tonality. Some theorists disagree on exactly how Schenkerian techniques should be applied to jazz, but hardly anyone, however, seems to doubt that Schenkerian techniques are the best way to examine jazz’s tonal structures. While I am certainly not opposed to Schenkerian techniques, using them as the only tool for jazz harmonic analysis misses some important aspects of the music at hand. With a few notable exceptions (people like Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau, for instance), jazz musicians conceive of the music harmonically, rather than linearly. As a gentle corrective to this situation, the present paper presents a transformational model that, while not totally devoid of voice-leading considerations, shifts attention back to harmony as a primary way of understanding jazz. While on the surface a transformational model may seem just as abstract as Schenkerian analysis, harmony in jazz fits in quite well with David Lewin‘s famous “transformational attitude.” A jazz musician does not think of chords as series of Cartesian points, but rather as a series of “characteristic gestures” between them. Tellingly, they do not refer to a piece‘s harmonic structure as “the chords,” but rather as “the changes.”

The most common harmonic progression in jazz is undoubtedly the ii7–V7–I7 progression (hereafter, ii–V–I, or often, simply ii–V). It is the first progression taught in most jazz method books, and the only small-scale progression to have an entire Aebersold play-along volume dedicated to it. The progression is so prevalent that many jazz musicians describe tunes in terms of their constituent ii–Vs; such a musician might describe the bridge of “All the Things You Are” as being simply “ii–V to G, ii–V to E, then V–I in F.” While some theorists are quick to dismiss this kind of description for lacking rigor, in this paper I take the way jazz musicians actually think about the music they play as a starting point for developing a more rigorous transformational approach to jazz harmony. This paper begins by outlining the basics of what I will call “ii–V space,” compares this space with other models of jazz harmony along with other transformational approaches, and finally two analyses to illustrate the utility of ii–V space for jazz analysis.