The Real Book can refer to any of a number of popular compilations of lead sheets for jazz tunes. It usually refers to Volume 1 of an underground series of books transcribed and collated by students at Berklee College of Music during the 1970s.
The name was chosen to distinguish it from widely available fake books which printed only chords and lyrics of standard songs to avoid copyright issues. The Real Book included melody lines, thus infringing on copyright. Older versions were pirated (unlicensed) publications that paid no royalties to copyright holders. In 2004, Hal Leonard published a licensed edition, which paid royalties to copyright holders.
Musicians find it convenient to work from "the book", because it is available in different editions to suit B♭, E♭, and C (concert pitch) instruments, as well as bass clef and voice editions ("low" and "high" voice, with lyrics included). A band leader can conveniently call out page numbers, since each edition is also paginated identically.
History of the 'original' Real Book
Bassist Steve Swallow and pianist Paul Bley are rumored to have been responsible for producing lead sheets for the book. However, this is a myth. Compositions by Swallow, Bley, and their friends (e.g. Chick Corea) are heavily represented in The Real Book alongside jazz standards and classic jazz compositions because those were the songs that were being played most by jazz musicians in early 1970s Boston where the book was created. There is also speculation that composer Stu Balcomb was involved in assembling the book given his credit in Swallow's album Real Book for "cover graphics" and given the presence of several of his tunes in the book. Handwriting in The Real Book matches that in the liner notes for the album, suggesting that the book was written by Swallow. Again, this is inaccurate, but Swallow knew who to call to get the picture for his album.
In February 2018, Swallow was asked by an interviewer about the origins of The Real Book, and he gave the following explanation:
I can divulge some of the information [regarding who created the original Real Book] ...There were a couple of guys who were students at Berkeley in the mid-1970s. They got the idea of doing it in order to make money to get through school. [They] came to me early in the process to ask me if they could use my tunes...I had to confront the issue of copyright royalties, because clearly they weren't prepared to set up the mechanism for paying royalties on the songs they intended to publish. I thought about it for several days and decided that I wanted to do it, that what was important to me was to make my songs available to people who wanted to play them. I also reasoned that in the end I'd probably profit from having them available [in the Real Book], that eventually guys who played them would grow up and record them, and I'd make money in that way. And that turned out to be the case, it turned out to have been a wise financial decision. At the request of the guys who did the book, I also contacted Carla Bley and Steve Kuhn and a few other people who wrote tunes, that I knew, and [I] explained the situation to them and asked them if they wanted their tunes in the book as well, and both [Bley and Kuhn] decided that they did, and gave these guys a bunch of their lead sheets, as I gave mine. Then I gave [The Real Book creators] some further help proofing stuff, giving them Jim Hall's changes to "Here's That Rainy Day". I thought it was a good thing; that's about the extent of my involvement. Then I watched these guys finally get the book together. One of them had a beautiful manuscript that subsequently became classic—it's called the Real Book font, and it imitates with uncanny accuracy his hand. He went on to be a big-time music copyist in Hollywood...The irony is that shorty after the book was put out, some other people realized they could photocopy it and sell it themselves, and the two guys who did all the work and put the book together made a lot less money than they had hoped to because there were imitation Real Books out there almost immediately...The Real Book was imperfect; there were wrong changes throughout it, but it was tremendously more accurate than what existed previously. And also, it was a lot more legible; it was easy to read."
Only the first volume is the original. The two following volumes of The Real Book were produced. Volume 2 is printed in characteristically 'rough' handwriting and transcription, while the third volume is typeset on a computer.
Pat Metheny claims that while teaching at Berklee College of Music from 1973 to '74, one of his guitar students and one of Gary Burton's vibraphone students (both of whom wish to remain anonymous) invented the idea of assembling the anthology that would form The Real Book.
The transcriptions in The Real Book are unlicensed; no royalties are paid to the musicians whose songs appear in the book. Consequently, the book violates copyright and is therefore illegal. In the past, it was usually sold surreptitiously in local music stores, often hidden behind the counter for customers who asked. PDF editions of the book are often available illegally on P2P networks.
The name is most likely a play on words from the common name for these types of song folios: "fake book". But it could have been influenced by the Boston alternative weekly newspaper, The Real Paper, started by writers of The Phoenix newspaper in Boston after a labor dispute.
A variety of dates have been attributed to the book. The April 1990 issue of Esquire featured The Real Book in the "Man at His Best" column by Mark Roman in an article called "Clef Notes". He stated, "I don't know a jazzman who hasn't owned, borrowed, or Xeroxed pages from a Real Book at least once in his career", and he quoted John F. Voigt, music librarian at Berklee. "The Real Book came out around 1971. The only material available in print then was crap."
Another feature surfaced on April 10, 1994, in The New York Times article "Flying Below the Radar of Copyrights". Guitarist Bill Wurtzel was quoted as saying, "Everyone has one, but no one knows where they come from." The writer of the article, Michael Lydon, said, "I got mine in 1987 from a bassist who lives in Queens and who attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston; many in jazz circles suspect that students there reproduced the first copies of it in the mid-70s."
Music sequencing software Steinberg Cubase has Real Book as a choice in Page Mode Setting; the key signature would be displayed only once at the top of the page in the notated sheet music, as is the style in the fake book.
In Barry Kernfeld's book The Story of Fake Books, Chapter 7 is titled "The Making of the Real Book" with interviews with Steve Swallow and Pat Metheny.
History of the 'new' Real Book
In 2004, music publisher Hal Leonard obtained the rights to most of the tunes contained in the original Real Book and published the first legal edition, calling it the Real Book Sixth Edition in tacit acknowledgment of the five previous illegal versions. The cover and binding are identical to the 'old' Real Book, and the books even employ a font which is remarkably similar to the handwritten style of the originals although the new editions are more legible. The other main improvements are that most of the editing mistakes have been corrected; and, of course, every tune has been licensed and the copyright owners are being paid for the use of their intellectual property. The books were initially priced cheaper than the illegal ones were usually sold for—with the stated intention of driving the underground distributors out of business or boosting their own sales of the book. 137 tunes are missing in the 6th edition that were in the 5th, while 90 new tunes have been added.
Hal Leonard subsequently released The Real Book, Volume II, Second Edition in answer to the Real Book, Volume II. In July 2006 they released The Real Book, Volume III, Second Edition, in December 2010, The Real Book, Volume IV, -in June 2013, The Real Book, Volume V and in June 2016 The Real Book, Volume VI. The Real Vocal Book, Volume I, Second Edition also appeared recently, clearly a (more legible) response to the old book of similar title.
These books contain much, but not all, of the same material as their counterparts; and in most cases, but not all, charts from the new Hal Leonard books are compatible with the Real Book charts. In some cases, compatibility issues occur where corrections have been made to some of the mistakes in the 5th edition charts; in other cases, 6th edition charts may reference changes on better or more authoritative recordings.
- The New Real Book, compiled & edited by Chuck Sher (Charles D. Sher; born 1947) & Sky Evergreen (aka Bob Bauer; né Robert E. Bauer; 1956–1997), Sher Music (publisher) (1988) Volume III, E♭ ISBN 978-1-883217-03-7
- The Real Book 2nd edition, Hal Leonard (publisher) (2004)
- The Real Book, 2nd edition, O. Angabe (publisher) (1980) OCLC 314155091
- The Real Book, Pacific edition, Real Book Press (1980) OCLC 9593108
- The Real Book, 6th edition (2007) OCLC 56846058, 189624769, 750243800
Note: The New Real Book, also in 3 volumes, published by Sher Music Co., is another legal and readily available modern alternative. The collection of tunes in it differs from the original Real Book, but this edition offers some of the same songs, in new transcriptions and a different notation.
Some other music publishers also apply the term Real Book to their own publications — for example, the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music publishes The AB Real Book. Alfred Publishing Co. has three real books.
- Ralph Patt, author of The Vanilla Book of 400 chord progressions for jazz standards
- Chas. H. Hansen Music Corp., pioneer publisher of legitimate fake books
- Metheny, Pat. The Pat Metheny Real Book: C instruments (Artist ed.). Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard. ISBN 978-1480350595.
- Schroeder, David (Interviewer) (February 14, 2018). Steve Swallow & John Scofield Interviewed by Dr. David Schroeder, NYU Steinhardt Jazz Studies Director (Motion picture). New York City: NYU Steinhardt Jazz Studies.
- Man At His Best: Clef Notes, by Mark B. Roman (born 1962), Esquire, April 1990, Vol. 113 ISSN 0194-9535
- Pop Music; Flying Below The Radar Of Copyrights, Michael C. Lydon (born 1942), New York Times, April 10, 1994
- Kernfeld, Barry (2006). The Story of Fake Books (1 ed.). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. p. 129. ISBN 0-8108-5727-8.
- Guide · Differences Between the 5th and 6th Editions, from realbooklisten.com (The Real Book Listening Original url accessed 2013-11-1)
- Obituary: Evergreen, Sky "Bob Bauer," 41, San Francisco, CA, San Francisco Chronicle, June 19, 1997
- Sher Music official website, Chuck Sher (Charles D. Sher; born 1947) (proprietor)