April 29th, 2011

Basic Bebop Reharmonization

By Eric

If you took a quick survey and asked a few people to describe the components of bebop, you might come up with some answers like: “fast tempos, lots of notes, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, b9’s, b5’s, altered dominants, diminished scales.

While all of these are true of the music, one of the most overlooked, but surprisingly simple devices of bebop is that of super-imposing chords over existing changes.

Aside from the essential rhythmic and melodic characteristics of the music, the practice of reharmonizing common chord changes, whether implied melodically by the soloist or explicitly stated harmonically by the rhythm section, was crucial to the innovations of bebop.

Dizzy Gillespie talks about this concept in his book with Al Fraser, To Be, or Not…To Bop:

We found out what the composers were doing by analyzing these tunes, and then added substitute chords to songs like “Night and Day,” “How High the Moon,” “Lover,” “What is this Thing Called Love,” and “Whispering.” When we borrowed from a standard, we added and substituted so many chords that most people didn’t know what song we really were playing. “How High the Moon” became “Ornithology” and “What is this Thing Called Love” became “Hot House.” … That was our thing in bebop, putting in substitutions. (p.207)

Many of the reharmonization techniques of the musicians of the 1940’s centered around super-imposing or substituting progressions, most commonly through the use of ii-V7’s, over the existing progressions of traditional standards. These traditional pop-tunes were predominantly composed of basic harmonies: Major chords (triads), minor chords, & V7 chords, and contained simple chord progressions that had little harmonic motion.

The progression below is an example of a static V7 chord commonly found in these traditional tunes:

Instead of playing over a static V7 sound for two bars, bebop musicians would play a ii-7 chord for one bar and the V7 for the second bar:

Or, the original V7 chord could be replaced with its tri-tone substitution:


Reharmonizing standards

Many standards that we play today are reharmonizations of traditional songs and show tunes. Musicians have substituted chords and created new melodies over these same group of tunes for years. As different aspects of harmony have been explored through time, different reharmonization techniques have been used.

Understanding the fundamentals of reharmonizing standard chords, as was common in bebop, is crucial to creating long, flowing lines and improvising in a modern style. The harmonic breakthroughs in jazz are built upon the harmonic knowledge of the previous generation of musicians. To truly understand this music, you must study this evolution of harmony and innovation.

Replacing V7 with ii-V7

As the above example shows, it’s a simple, but important concept to substitute a ii-V7 for a plain old V7 chord (E7 —> B-7 E7). This concept works equally well whether you’re implying it through the lines of your solo or actually reharmonizing the chords of a tune. Scores of players since the bebop era have used this technique effectively over countless harmonies.

The examples below illustrate how bebop musicians utilized this ii-V7 reharmonization over the popular songs of their day to create new compositions:


Whispering, a traditional standard written by John Schonberger in 1920, is composed of mostly static V7 chords. Take a look at the first 16 bars of the chord progression:

Reharm: Groovin’ High

Dizzy Gillespie based his 1945 tune, Groovin’ High, on the changes to Whispering. He did this by adding substitute chords to the static V7 chords, thereby creating a progression with more motion. Below are the first 16 bars of Groovin’ High:

Instead of staying on the V7 chords for two bars, he simply puts a ii-7 chord in the first bar and resolves to the V7 chord in the second bar. For example the | D7 | D7 | in mm. 3-4 becomes | A-7 | D7  |. The same technique is used in mm. 7-8 and in mm. 11-12, | V7 | V7 | becomes | ii-7 | V7 |.


(Back Home Again in) Indiana

Written in 1917, Indiana was a very prominent pop-tune and was played frequently by Louis Armstrong. The changes for the first 16 bars are shown below. Like many traditional tunes, notice the use of predominantly I and V7 chords and the two bar stretches of dominant chords:

Reharm: Donna Lee


Donna Lee is known for its intricate melody and fast tempo, but its method of reharmonization is surprisingly simple. Once again the bebop technique of replacing static V7 chords with ii-V’s is employed:


At the key points in the tune where a V7 chord is resolved to the I chord, a ii-V7 is inserted. This substitution technique works equally well, whether you are implying a ii-V7 over a two bar V7 chord (mm. 5-6) or a one bar V7 chord (m.8).

The clip below illustrates this evolution from traditional music to bebop perfectly. In it you can hear Parker playing the head to Indiana and by the last 8 bars of the melody he is mixes it with the melody to Donna Lee:



Utilizing descending ii-V7’s


The 12 bar blues is one the central forms of jazz. The blues has grown from its I-IV-V-I beginnings to the 12 bar blues we’re familiar with today, and continues to evolve harmonically. (Refer to this article on Learning the Blues for more on the progressions possible within the blues.) Every musician and innovator has dealt with the blues in their own unique way and Bird, Diz, and their peers were no exception.


Reharm: Blues for Alice

Parker reharmonized the blues by super-imposing ii-V’s over static dominant chords. He achieved this by adding a series of descending ii-V’s, both chromatically and by whole-step, to the progression to add more harmonic interest. This is commonly referred to as “Bird Blues,” and can be found in tunes like Blues for Alice, Freight Train, and the first four bars of Confirmation.

First, take a look at the first 4 bars of a “standard” 12 bar blues progression:

In the first 4 bars of Blues for Alice, Bird uses a sequence of ii-V7’s descending by whole-step:

After the first bar, he inserts a minor ii-V7 starting a half-step below the tonic and continues with ii-V’7 moving down by whole-step. The goal of both progressions is to resolve at the Bb7 in the fifth bar, but the reharm gets there in a way that creates more harmonic interest. (This is also the progression to the first 4 bars of Confirmation.)

Now take a look at the next 4 bars of the blues progression (mm. 5-8):

And compare that to the second 4 bars of a Bird blues:

Again, the goal of both progression is to resolve at the G-7 in the 9th bar, but the way they arrive at that point is important. Here Bird uses a sequence of ii-V7’s descending by half-step.


Rhythm Changes

The chord progression to Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, or rhythm changes as it’s commonly referred to, has been one of the most used chord progressions in jazz.  Ever since George played the progression himself, as he does in the clip above, hundreds of melodies have been written over these familiar changes.

Reharm: The Eternal Triangle

This tune is from the famous record Sonny Side Up with Diz, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt. Here, the bridge of rhythm changes is reharmonized using the concept again of descending ii-V’s over a static V7 chord. Instead of the standard progression of V7’s on the bridge:


On the bridge of Eternal Triangle, we have the following progression:

For this reharm, a sequence of descending ii-V7’s is used for the entire 8 bars of the bridge. The progression starts a half-step above the root and descends by half-step until the final B7.

Tri-Tone substitution

Another important device used by the musicians of the bebop era was the use of tri-tone substitutions. Frequently, the V7 chord was substituted with a V7 chord a tri-tone away (Db7 instead of G7). This accentuates the b5 and b9 of the dominant chord and creates a descending bass line in the context of a ii-V7-I: | D-7 Db7 | C |. Below are some examples of tri-tone substitutions found in The Eternal Triangle and Groovin’ High.

Eternal Triangle Bridge:

Take a look at the last bar of the bridge. The next chord after this bar is Bb, the I chord beginning the A section. Normally, you would see a V7 or ii-V7 of the tonic, leading back to the I chord:


But, in Eternal Triangle the ii-V7 to Bb is substituted with a ii-V7 in E, (F#-7 B7), a tri-tone away:


Groovin’ High

Another example of tri-tone substitutions used in chord progression reharmonizations is the 9th bar of Groovin’ High. The chords starting in the 9th bar of the original tune, Whispering, look like this:

Instead of staying on the I chord (Eb) for two bars and moving to the ii-V7 (F-7 Bb7),  a iii – VI progression is implied over the static two bars of Eb:

Simple enough, but on top of this he uses a tri-tone substitution for the VI chord and the V7 chord:

The result is a chromatically descending bass line that resolves to the I chord, Eb.

Incorporating this concept

Once you’ve studied this idea of reharmonization, it’s time to start using these devices in your own solos. The first step of course is to transcribe and develop language over ii-V7s. After you’ve done this, begin to super-impose this language over V7 chords. Remember, anytime that you see a static V7 chord you can imply a ii-V7 over the chord, even if it isn’t being played by the rhythm section.

This is a very important concept and is one of the foundations of modern jazz. To fully grasp this concept you must study the origins of this sound in bebop and understand how it was used to reharmonize common progressions. From there you can begin to implement these devices into your own playing and in-turn, create your own innovations.

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