William Flynn

Guitarist | Composer | Educator

Unlocking the Abstract Truth of the Blues, Part 2

Now that we've discussed the numerous ii-V progressions that jazz musicians insert into the blues (in Part 1 of this post), let’s address some ways that jazz musicians treat the rest of the progression (bars 1-3 & 5-7). These bars of the progression cover the I and IV chords, and as I mentioned in Part 1, there's nothing wrong with using blues scale material over these parts. To see an example of a soloist doing just that, refer to my transcription of Tom Harrell improvising over a blues in all 12 keys. Many of Tom's choruses begin with blues scale material over the first few bars, which is something I address in my blog post on Tom's playing. However, notice that Tom refrains from exclusively using the blues scale over these parts of the form. Although the blues scale is an expressive and oft-used device over the blues, it doesn't adequately capture or describe the dominant I & IV chords used in the blues. The following is one suggestion for dealing with these spots in a more "jazzy" way:

How Do You Play Over a Dominant I Chord?

Oddly enough, one of the most characteristic harmonic elements of the blues also contributes to it being slightly awkward to construct melodies over: the dominant I chord. At first glance the phrase “dominant I chord” appears to be oxymoronic. As discussed in this post, dominant chords always function as V chords in major and minor keys. While this is definitely true, the blues is an odd exception to this rule in that in the blues progression, the I, IV, and V chords are all dominant chords. Being as it is in the nature of the dominant chord to create tension seeking resolution, they can be slightly awkward to improvise over when functioning as tonic chords. In my study, I have noticed an interesting device that beboppers use to deal with this, a device that I refer to as delaying the dominant.

Delaying the Dominant

So what is "delaying the dominant"? Well, if you've listened to classic bebop recordings, it's a sound you've probably heard a hundred times already, but maybe just haven't aurally categorized. The clip below is a great example of Charlie Parker delaying the dominant on his classic bebop blues tune "Billie's Bounce". The clip captures Bird playing over the first four bars of his first chorus.

Can you hear Bird laying into a certain note going into the last bar of the phrase? Is that a sound you've heard before? As I said, if you're familiar with bebop musicians playing over the blues, the answer is probably "yes". As seen in the notation below, the note Bird plays to anticipate m. 4 is the b7 of the dominant I chord, and the act of him waiting until the end of the four bar phrase to play it is what I refer to as "delaying the dominant". He is delaying the full effect of the dominant 7th chord until the measure before the dominant I chord resolves to the dominant IV chord. Even though the note isn't actually played in m. 4, the fact that he's resting during m. 4 creates the aural illusion of the listener continuing to hear that sound over m. 4.


To see a few more examples of a bebopper delaying the dominant on an F blues, let's take a look at Sonny Stitt's solo on "Au Privave" from the album Sonny Stitt Sits in with the Oscar Peterson Trio

During the first four bars of his first chorus, notice how Stitt uses an E natural over the F7 chord (beat 4 of m. 2). When delaying the dominant, it is very important to not think of using a maj7 over a dom7 chord as inherently "wrong". In the example below, Stitt is using the E natural not as a chord tone, but as a chromatic lower neighbor to the root. This is a very important distinction to make, as it is crucial to understanding how to delay the dominant. 

The beginning of chorus three shows us another great example of Stitt using E naturals to enclose the root and thus delay the dominant. He uses a bebop dominant scale gesture (R, 7, b7) to descend into the b7 of the F7 on the downbeat of m. 4. 


Notice the similarities between Chorus 5 and Chorus 3, specifically the last two beats of m. 2 and the first two beats of m. 3. In both, Stitt descends from the 3rd of the F7 (the first time using a D-7 arpeggio, and the second time using an A-7 arpeggio) and then encloses the root.

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So, to summarize: 

  • Due to the natural tendency of the dominant 7th chord to seek resolution, the dominant 7th chord is tricky to create melodies over. 
  • Therefore, beboppers often "delay" the sound of the dominant chord by waiting to play the b7 of the chord until m. 4 of the form.

 Do you want to explore these ideas further?

Head over to my (brand new!) Store to download the educational PDF 3 Blues Etudes. The PDF contains three 2-chorus etudes showing bebop vocabulary over a jazz blues in F and Bb. Purchasing the .zip file will give you the following versions: 

  • Concert (with or without guitar TAB)
  • Bb
  • Eb
  • Bass clef