This article is copyright 2015 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in Down Beat, Vol. 83, No. 1, January 2016. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Sub-Progressions as Sub-Targets


by Antonio J. García


Substitute chord progressions offer some of the most riveting, colorful moments in jazz. But how do you justify them in theory, much less improve upon them in practice? Here is a most practical path that you can demonstrate to yourself or your students in less than an hour.

Long before encountering substitute chord progressions, most musicians come upon surprise cadences (also known as substitute cadences or sub-targets). Bach chorales are filled with countless superb examples, the simplest of which might be a V chord that instead of resolving to a I chord goes to a vi. Sometimes the chorale might quickly return to the key of the I chord; other times it might turn out that the key center has changed, with what used to be the vi now the new i chord.

To demonstrate surprise cadences, I like to play a bossa nova progression in C major that cadences on C as expected. I ask my students to sing the tonic note (root of the key) to me after the final cadence—without my singing it to them. The result looks like Example 1. (Feel free to simplify the rhythms to half-notes if needed.)

Example 1

Less-experienced musicians will often sing the fifth, third, or maybe even the seventh or ninth instead of the root of the final chord. Work with them to develop the invaluable skill of hearing tonic: few bandstand tools are more useful than hearing what key you’re in at a given moment!

Once we can all agree on hearing C as tonic at the end of this progression, it’s time to demonstrate what a surprise cadence or sub-target sounds like. In Example 2 I play the same opening but end with a two-bar statement in a surprise key, here Eb major.

Example 2

Hearing nine beats of Eb major is usually sufficient to prompt most in attendance to sing the Eb on their own as tonic rather than C, thus demonstrating that we have successfully modulated to another key. And the movement is quite attractive! Feel free to repeat the example for positive reinforcement.

And now the logic of the progression is self-evident: if, while in the key of C, a Dm7-G7 progression is a perfectly fine way of getting to Ebmaj7, then the same Dm7-G7 pairing should be a wonderful means of arriving at Ebmaj7 if we’re already in the key of Eb to begin with! Let’s test it in Example 3, where instead of starting in C, we start in Eb.

Example 3

You can demonstrate the last several bars over and over again: it is a convincing progression.

Let’s try one in the other direction on the circle of fifths. Play a ii-V in C that lands on Emaj7, such as in Example 4.

Example 4

Then cross over to the mirror-image of substitute cadence: the substitute progression. If, while in the key of C, the Dm7-G7 progression is a successful approach to Emaj7, then the same Dm7-G7 pairing should be a fine path to Emaj7 if we’re already in the key of E to start with. Let’s test it in Example 5, where instead of starting in C, we start in E.

Example 5

Thus a pattern emerges, as illustrated by the chart in Example 6: the left column’s sub-target (final chord) is the inverse-equation of the lower-fraction in the right column. A minor third (left side) is inverse to a major sixth (right side), a major third to a minor sixth, and so on.

Example 6
(No audio accompanies
this example.)

Sub-progressions mirror their sub-target opposites, forever related, equally viable, equally voiceable.

Such “subs” are accepted within the basic progressions of many jazz standards. For example, the ii-V/bIII-I progression lives within the eighth measure of “Stella by Starlight,” where either an Ab7 or an Ebm7-Ab7 sequence leads to a return of the tonic Bb chord in bar nine (Example 7).

Example 7

If thinking of “Just Friends” in F, the same sequence (now Bbm7-Eb7) in measures three and four leads to the tonic F chord in bar five (Example 8).

Example 8
Play Example 7

And the ii-V/bV-I progression is jazz’s revered “tritone substitution” (Example 9).

Example 9
Play Example 9

The chart shown earlier in Example 6 is by no means complete; it simply opens the door to yet more possibilities, including cadencing on minor chords: any acceptable surprise cadence can reveal an equally acceptable substitute progression within the key of the former surprise.

But its applications are endless. Yes, as a composer or arranger you can learn to employ these colors. But often overlooked is the potential for the improvising jazz soloist, who can extemporize lines in the key of the bIII (or any other) to create tension over a basic ii-V progression, landing when ready back in the key of the I chord—whether the accompaniment adjusts to those new tones or not. You’ll hear such in the performances of many renowned soloists whose tolerance for dissonance leads to colors that are not always random chromaticism but often organized chromaticism, freeing those soloists from the bounds of otherwise-recommended scales for given chords. The following, extensive Example 10 (not published in the print edition of this article for lack of space but provided here as an additional notated and audio illustration) demonstrates how such a soloist might be thinking—even if the rhythm section is not making a single adjustment to complement the soloist's harmonic conception.

Example 10
Play Example 10

After all, if you follow the notion “you can play any note over any chord, so long as you convince me” to its logical conclusion, you arrive at “you can play any chord over any chord” as well.

Beyond the above example: if the accompanying instruments do shift some or all of their tonal centers to match in the moment the soloist's harmonic colors, the result is less dissonance between solo and comping—traded for a wildly varied set of solo changes for that chorus of the tune, inspired by the adventurousness of the soloist. Sometimes the comping instruments lead the variances, prompting the soloist to either adjust to the new harmonies or to convincingly deliver what had been diatonic solo lines now over dissonant harmonies.

With substitute progressions in play, the harmony of a standard tune can become a fountain of improvised possibilities.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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