ii-V-I Jazz Licks


As most jazz players know, and many jazz students quickly learn, ii-V-I jazz licks (and the ii-V-I progression) are at the heart of jazz improvisational study. The study of ii-V-I jazz licks is important for a few reasons:

  1. The ii-V-I progression will be frequently encountered in the jazz language, especially in the jazz standards and what is referred to as the American Songbook, and so students must be familiar with recognizing it and navigating it;
  2. ii-V-I jazz licks offer a structured, methodical starting place for the study of improvisation as a whole, which can sometimes seem daunting to jazz students.
  3. By studying the intricacies of various ii-V-I jazz licks, students begin to understand the relationships between chords and intervals, which is very important to more advanced jazz improvisation.

In this article we are going to look at a couple ii-V-I jazz licks and dissect the lick so that we have a better understanding of how and why these licks work. We’ll also talk shop – a bit of music theory – in order to deepen our understanding of harmony and chord scales. So let’s get started!

ii-V-I Jazz Licks #1

ii-V-I jazz lick #1 is borrowed from a Charlie Parker solo and is based on outlining the chords in the chord progression.

ii-V-I Jazz Licks 2

Let’s examine this lick more closely. First, notice that we’re in the key of Bb major. Next, notice that ALL of the notes in this lick (with one exception) come from the Bb major scale. (The only “outside” note is the ‘E natural’ – and technically the ‘C#’ grace note). Thirdly, notice that most of this lick is made up of chord tones from each of these three chords. In the Cm7 measure, the lick uses only 4 different notes, 3 of which are chord tones (the Bb, G, and Eb). In the F7 measure 6 different notes are used, 4 of which are chord tones. This illustrates how important chord tones are to improvisation – so chord tone recognition should absolutely be part of your jazz practice.

ii-V-I Jazz Licks #2

In ii-V-I jazz lick #2, we notice again that it is made up entirely of notes from the Bb major scale.

ii-V-I Jazz Licks 3Chord scales refer to a collection of notes that specifically correspond to a chord. Basically, a chord scale is a scale from which a particular chord was created or extracted. In the lick above, all of the notes come from a Bb major scale, so we could correctly say that the chord scale for each of these chords is Bb major. However, we prefer to relate our chord scales to the root of the chord. This is where modes come in to play.

When we begin a Bb major scale on C (the 2nd scale degree of Bb major) we get what is called a dorian scale. When we begin a Bb major scale on F (the 5th degree) we get what is called a mixolydian scale. So we could more accurately say that the chord scale for Cm7 is C dorian, and the chord scale for F7 is F mixolydian.

Check out our ii-V-I jazz licks lesson for more great licks!

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  1. This ii-V-I jazz licks lesson is probably where I need to start. I know and do the chord inversions but I need to go much slower on your advanced comping lesson.

    I don’t understand how your program works. Do I buy your 48 page piano success playbook or do you have a lesson sequence just for various jazz approaches? I’d be happy to get better at improvising on the jazz standards.

  2. I find your teaching strageties very helpful to me! I woul like know the most affordable way I can make better use of your program! Thanks

  3. Greatly appreciate the exceptionally relevant and useful material that is offered for free! It is a great incentive to subscribe to the paid lessons. I will certainly want to do that when I’m able to find the time; hopefully soon.

  4. First, thank you for the materials and instruction you provide on your site. It has been exceptionally helpful in developing my playing skills. A very knowledgeable and exceptional musician taught me about the ii-V-I jazz progression and he also gave me a book by Mark Levine (The Jazz Piano Book) to use as a study guide for theory concepts (it is a very technical read). It does go over the the Major modes of the scale which you discussed above. However, I have never been able to wrap my brain around how and why they are used in improvisation and in this case licks. So, would you develop a lesson on the modes and how they are used in improvisation?

    Again, Thanks Ike

    1. First off, with Willie you are in the right place. As a fellow who started in life as a professional jazz pianist/singer and arranger, I have appreciated Willie’s dedication to teaching music for a long time.

      However, neither Willie nor anyone else, as far as I know, can make a skilled, inventive musician out of you unless you internalize chords and melodies, bring them from the keyboard to your heart and mind.

      Train yourself to take musical dictations just like you learned to write prose. Then train yourself to meditate on the various scales, chords and modes one at a time with frequent rest periods during your learning process. Finally, check with Willie to make sure that my advice makes sense.

      Breaking the rules is the last step in your musical development. That’s when you try to match the sounds you hear in your mind with emotions you have experienced in your real life, be they love, hate, the joy of life, whatever.

      I wish you bluebirds in the spring…

  5. Willie, you are by far the best teacher of piano, styles, and theory!!! You have every level available and you give sooo much free material. You are to be commended and I thank you!

JPC glossary / key

  • RH – right hand
  • LH – left hand
  • HT – hands together
  • CM – contrary motion (to move in opposite directions)
  • Harmonically – to play as chords (all notes together at once)
  • Melodically – to play as a melody (single note) – arpeggiate
  • R7, R3, R37 – chord shells (Root-7th, Root-3rd, Root-3rd-7th respectively)
  • bpm – beats per minute. Refers to the metronome setting