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The Real Book: A History & Commentary

by Matt O’Donnell
Managing Editor, Bass Frontiers

I think everyone who has ever owned a Real Book can clearly remember where they got it from. My story begins in early 2004, so it’s not nearly as cool or as similar to a drug deal as many others have to offer. I had never taken a bass lesson in high school, until I was about to go off to Berklee College of Music in the fall, and I met Bjarni Nermoe, someone who had actually gone there. I wasn’t so much worried about my abilities, I just wanted to make sure that I could translate the stuff I picked up, scattershot as it was, into the same kind of language used at Berklee. Bjarni would subsequently turn me on to Jim Stinnett (his Real Book anecdote comes later…), but at the end of my first lesson he burned me a data disc containing the 5th Edition Real Book in PDF format.

The Real Book, in its most renowned form, is a collection of jazz standards and new “hip” tunes, arranged in lead sheet format (meaning one line of melody with the chord symbols above). The first Real Book popped its head up at Berklee in the 1970s. Forty years later, no one is willing to divulge the identity of the students who wrote it. Yes folks, this is the Deep Throat of the sheet music world. We can generally tell that it was someone who was really interested in the cutting edge of jazz, since it contains a lot of tunes from bassist Steve Swallow and guitaritst Pat Metheny, both of whom taught at Berklee at the time. A current faculty member (who chose to contribute to this article anonymously) has explained that in 1971 – 1972, there was no one source of these tunes on paper. However, tons of single sheets for tunes by the new composers (Steve Swallow, Gary Burton, Carla Bley, Chick Corea, etc.) were popping up in jam sessions all the time. Speculation leads me to believe that the “publisher” of the original Real Book may very well have started off by writing up these sheets, as the handwriting was very much the same.

All of this folklore leads to my theory that early on, it was just about playing these newer tunes, and nothing about enterprise. I say this because it seems as though the addition of standards comes later on. This would make sense because the older songs from the bop masters would just have been common knowledge. These newer tunes would have required some reading skill for sure, with advanced chord changes melodic phrasings that would just be too much to pick up quick enough between songs on a session. This also makes sense because in Barry Kernfeld’s “The Story of Fake Books”, the two anonymous people who created The Real Book are quoted as saying that the book was eventually put together as a way to fund their education, but also give other students hipper, more sophisticated sets of charts. This would explain why many tunes are transcribed from later, more evolved renditions. The version of “April In Paris” is from Bill Evans, for instance. Thankfully, the authors include the composer and the version they copped their chart from on every page.

There are a ton of stories I’ve heard about how guys acquired their copy of The Real Book in Boston. They range from uttering a specific phrase to one of the clerks at the Copy Cop on Boylston Street to looking for the right homeless looking man who would take you to his car parked a few blocks away and give you one out of his trunk (I’ve also heard first-hand accounts of a similar looking shady guy who had a one lightbulb room in a basement full of books…..this version sounds a little more romanticized). By the time I got to Berklee in September 2004, if you wanted to get a print copy, you needed to go a little ways outside of the downtown area to a music store. I’m sure it’s not a big deal nowadays, but I’ll keep that store nameless, just for the sake of consistency in this article.

Clearly, someone eventually needed to bring up the idea of legality. None of the composers whose work was included got paid for the inclusion of their music. In our day and age of file sharing and bootlegging of music, movies, TV shows, software, video games, books, and more, this is an obvious argument. On the other hand, I contend that in the case of the early days for The Real Book, composers with integrity were a lot better off letting it go.

Lots of the earliest fake books were produced by cutting off the vocal line and chord symbols from piano/vocal/guitar sheet musics and pasting those lines together to create a piece of paper with as little extra stuff to distract someone as possible. Here’s where the problem occurs. The idea of adding the chord symbols at all is a way to sell this printed music to families who all played music or gatherings of friends who would bring their instruments over for social gatherings.

You know, before television and internet isolationism.

Anyway, lots of chords that are written into the piano music are re-spelled as simpler chords for people plunking guitars/banjos/ukuleles along with the piano. I suppose they don’t sound awful in and of themselves…but they’re not RIGHT. For instance, if the piano is playing an Am7(b5) chord, it would very often appear above the music as a Cm6. This happens because while the 6th (A) is the root of the actual chord being played, most strumming players will leave it out and play a simple Cm chord. If that happens, it won’t get in the way of what’s being played in the piano music. If they were to see an Am7(b5) chord symbol, they’d likely drop the b5 and play an Am7 (or even simpler Am). That wouldn’t work at all, because the Eb would rub against the E in all kinds of ways.

You will note, to that end, that The Real Book actually exists, categorically, as a “fake book” for all intensive purposes. The title, one would assume, is a jab at the inaccuracies of fake book, pretty much by saying “this is how to play these, for real”. Even if “real”, in this case, refers to how players were playing the tunes in the modern sense. The Real Book was not without its inaccuracies, though. Famously, there are four entire measures missing from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic Desafinado.

I was the victim of bitterness towards inaccuracies in The Real Book in 2006 at the hands of Jim Stinnett (I told you I would get to this story). I was preparing for a performance of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” at one of Jim’s Bass Workout events. I didn’t know the tune at the time, and instead of the guitarist playing it for me, the house drummer suggested that he just pull his copy of The Real Book and let me look at it for a sec. Jim overheard this suggestion, came in the room, and threw the book into his wood stove. He proceeded to come back in and tell us to listen to the Rollins version to “get the real $5!7”. I guess The Real Book was the real victim, but I was certainly a bystander.

Music publishers tried for years to compete with the illegal versions of The Real Book, which by 2002 had become arguably the best selling book of sheet music in history. At that time, Hal Leonard essentially worked the numbers to find that they could license about 85% of Book 1 of The Real Book (which by this time had reached it’s fifth edition). The other 15% was left out, comprised of really obscure tunes and tunes that they could not locate the copyright holders for. These were replaced by songs that are played extremely often, and should have been there anyway. Two years were spent working with the publishers to make the music correct, but still keep the music as hip and aesthetic as possible.

Hal Leonard has done extremely well with the “Sixth Edition” of The Real Book, releasing their updated jazz line in volumes transposed for different instruments, a vocal edition, and play-along tracks for learning and honing tunes before you even get on the gig. It has now been realized that in the way that jazz has a long list of standard repertoire, there are many other corners of the music world that have the same tradition, and it would be advantageous to provide players in those worlds the same benefits. There are now versions of The Real Book for Christmas songs, Rock & Roll, Blues, Bluegrass, Dixieland, and Worship, as well as composer specific books for Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis. All the books retain the same handwritten look, dedication to correctness, and attention as to what tunes really matter to people who may want the books.

I think that these new forays of The Real Book into different genres will continue to be wildly successful. It may take a little while for the other genres to catch up to the notoriety of the original jazz version, simply because of its mythical history and status, but I believe it can be done. I have seen copies of all the genre-based versions, and they are fantastic. Having spent a nice little chunk of time playing worship music in high school, and having seen people fight over chord changes and slash bass notes of tunes coming out at a rapid clip by artists like David Crowder, Matt Redman, etc., and knowing how many young people grow up learning to play their instruments in a church environment, why wouldn’t you want to have them all be consistent, developing the correct sounds of music in their ears going out into the world. Music will always have canon (as in standards, not imitative counterpoint haha!), and through the legitimization of the jazz Real Book and its successors, Hal Leonard is clearly perpetuating the growth of quality musicianship, opposed to pedantic obscurity. If you see the big cartoony letters on a book nowadays, you know you’re going learn how a LOT of music really goes.

You can get copies of the correct, legal The Real Book from Hal Leonard directly at Music Dispatch (1-800-637-2852) or by visiting your local music retailer.

Many thanks for this article go to a few anonymous Berklee College of Music Professors who were studying there and on the scene when The Real Book first appeared. I would also like to give source credit to a comment I could not find the source of by Patrick Ferreri. Information on Hal Leonard’s path to acquiring The Real Book and copies of their newer editions were provided by Jeff Schroedl and Lori Hagopian.

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  1. Many of the charts in the original Real Book were based on transcriptions and (unapproved) handouts from a reharmonization course, rather than the original published versions of the tunes. For that reason, there has long been controversy regarding the accuracy of the Real Book chart. While there were certainly some notation errors, not all the controversial elements were true mistakes. They were really deliberate reharmonizations that were interpreted mistakes. (And the teacher of that reharmonization course, who wasn’t directly involved in the creation of the Real Book, is a much beloved educator here, and so nobody wants to risk naming names in part out of concern for getting him or her in trouble regarding copyright violations, which would be bogus but you never know.)

  2. Edward Klinghoffer

    You might be interested in this correspondence between Barry Kerfeld and the RB author: http://www.personal.psu.edu/bdk4/
    It sets the record straight on many aspects of the RB. It’s an answer to his final chapter of “The Story of Fake Books.”

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