In 1930, George Gershwin published “I Got Rhythm.” While the musical it appeared in, “Girl Crazy,” has now been largely forgotten, the song went on to become a jazz standard like so many other Gershwin compositions. The song’s renown has grown for another reason, too: jazz composers started using the 32-bar, AABA chord progression of “I Got Rhythm” to serve as the structure for their own tunes. While “I Got Rhythm” may not have been the first song to use this harmonic structure, it’s certainly the most famous; heaven help the musician who shows up to a jam session and doesn’t know “rhythm changes.”
The rhythm changes form follows a I-vi-ii-V progression in the A section and a III7-VI7-II7-V7 structure in the B section. Musicians have praised the form for its harmonic and formal simplicity and its practicality for jam sessions and improvisation. Rhythm changes permeated the swing and bebop eras as musicians such as Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and many others wrote popular tunes that follow the same basic structure.
Check out our curated playlist below to hear jazz masters such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman apply their own approach to rhythm changes!