It was sort of like buying drugs: to get this book you had to go into an alley, and pay cash, or go back behind a legit music store, where the clerk furtively snuck you a copy; or grab it out of the trunk of some guy’s car. Maybe you had a teacher who sold you a copy from a stash he kept hidden somewhere.
It’s The Real Book, a collection of songs jazz musicians have tended to play for years. A lot of them are “standards,” tunes people learn to play because they’re interesting or challenging or just because other people already know them. It’s got no author, no publication info. It’s illegal because no copyright fees have been paid. And so to buy one you’d have to know somebody who had managed to run off a really large bunch of bound photocopies, and because of the illegality, and economies of scale, it ended up costing about as much as a legit book would have cost.
But everybody playing “jazz” had one. I’ve often played gigs with strangers where I’m told “just bring the Real Book.” It’s a standard starting point for beginners and a constant reference: virtually anyone aspiring to play jazz has a copy somewhere, cover torn off and pages missing, covered with penciled-in notations and transpositions.
There are now digital versions floating around, in .pdf format, and of course there’s an iphone/ipad app which lets you type in a song and then see the changes on the screen: miraculously, it also lets you change keys on the fly. Next time you’re at a wedding or some kind of reception, take a look at the music stand and see if there’s an ipad with The Real Book on it.
Just to confuse things, The Real Book is a “fake book,” a collection of songs reduced to a minimum. There are/were a lot of “fake books” out there: some legal, some not: each song usually appears as a single page that simply gives the “head”–the melody–and the chords as letters rather than as notes. It’s sometimes called a “lead sheet.”
There are a lot of ways to “voice” any chord. A lead sheet just gives you the basic idea and assumes you have your own way of playing it. A guitarist or piano play in a trio might omit the “G,” in that first chord, for example, and assume the bass player will cover it. Or he or she might play it in a different register, or with the order of the notes inverted.
Here’s a brief excerpt from a three page “reduced score,” for piano alone, for April in Paris:
The second example tells you exactly what to play.
Just by looking at The Real Book you can make some guesses about its provenance. There are a lot of seventies jazz tunes in it and a ton of tunes by the bassist Steve Swallow, who taught at the Berklee School of Music in Boston in the seventies. There are a lot of early Pat Metheny tunes as well, suggesting the same thing.
The Real Book was originally drawn up by someone with really good musical penmanship: somebody who, before the digital age, worked professionally as a copyist or arranger. Whoever wrote the book always gives the original composer of the song and generally describes, at the bottom, the version they are referencing–at the bottom of a page it will typically say “Bill Evans, “Village Vanguard,” or Charlie Parker, “April in Paris.” In this case, whoever wrote up this version of April in Paris was thinking of the way Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk played it. So it was done by a serious professional with a deep knowledge of jazz.
There are some famous mistakes: four measures missing from Jobim’s Desafinado, for example. And many of the chord changes are wrong in the sense that they aren’t the chords of the song as written.
What an odd thing–a totally “unauthorized,” “underground” standard that circulates on its own, strictly by word of mouth. At one point I wanted to do a history of The Real Book, and started doing some research. I posted some queries to musician’s discussion groups, and got an email from someone identifying himself only as “unknownguitarplayer@[redacted].net.” He wrote:
I was at Berklee in 71-72…I don’t think the full blown RB existed at that point. However, a lot of people around Berklee were playing tunes by Swallow, Burton, Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs, Mike Nock and Chick [Corea], and they would show up (even in Berklee ensembles) on lead sheets that looked identical to what ended up in the RB.
My guess is that an enterprising student, or one of the notoriously underpaid (at the time) faculty members might have decided to collect those sheets and perhaps put together more lead sheets in the same format.
Because the thing is illegal, no one wants to say who originally “published” it or wrote it. I interviewed a local musician who attended Berklee in the seventies, and he also said “yeah there’s a bunch of Steve Swallow tunes in there, one of his students probably put the thing together.” He claimed to have earlier versions of The Real Book boxed up in his basement, as well as other fake books and three-ring-binder collections of tunes that circulated among music students.
But I quickly found out that two historians were already working on it and I let it go: since then Barry Kernfeld has published The Story of Fake Books, which has a chapter on The Real Book and interviews the two people who made it, while not revealing their identity. They were students, and they wanted both to fund their studies and also to give music students a better, more sophisticated, hipper set of charts. They ran off copies at a copy center, and it quickly “went viral.”
The Real Book is an interesting economic artifact. On the one hand it represents the free market at work: on the other it’s an illicit product. Probably “Swallow, Burton, Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs, Mike Nock and Chick [Corea]” were delighted musicians learned and played their tunes, but imagine their additional delight if they actually got paid for each copy sold. In Kernfeld’s book, both Metheny and Swallow say they think the Real Book did them more good than harm.
There’s reason to be skeptical of paying a fee to play, say, April In Paris, since the composer, Vernon Duke, has been dead for more than forty years and the song was written in 1932, almost 80 years ago. But April in Paris is “represented” by Boosey & Hawkes, which bought the rights to Vernon Duke’s music in 2008. B&H was inspired by the Sonny Bon0 copyright extension act, also known as the Disney Protection Act, which extended copyright for up to 120 years after publication. If you want to play, you need to make sure a large corporation which had nothing to do with the song’s creation gets paid, for 100 years. Vernon Duke was the cat: he should get paid, and he did. Why should a bunch of parasitical leeches keep making money from his work?
That’s a big question, and it’s complicated by musical practice, particularly “jazz” musical practice. The jazz tradition isn’t really about fidelity to the composer’s intent, it’s all about improvisation. Musicians interested in jazz generally mess with the tune, a lot. They treat the composition as the starting point, and so they might alter the melody notes, the timing of the notes, or the chords.
When it works well, it completely remakes the tune.
Here’s George and Ira Gershwin’s The Man I Love as written:
And here it is as recorded with Billie Holiday, with a great sax solo from Lester Young
The original is cloying and larded with Broadway cutsey-poo: the repeating opening motif, with its childlike sing-song, infantilizes the singer. Holiday adds ease and irony and emotional depth: in her experience, men who were big and strong were often violent: she got her initial jazz education in brothels run by women, where the man they were waiting for was a paying customer, not a dreamy prince. Holiday turns a song of sweet yearning into a song full of ironic complexity. 1
The Real Book turns Vernon Duke’s first chord, Dm7b5 (D minor seven with a flatted fifth), already kind of an interesting chord to start a tune with, into a G7b9(sus4), a chord calculated to produce a much more ambiguous feeling. It comments on the original and deepens it.
In this example, you hear the phrase “April in Paris” played on a guitar, The first version is as Duke wrote it. The second starts with the G7b9(sus4) named in The Real Book.
It’s as if you rewrote the opening to Moby Dick slightly: “Some call me Ishmael.” Better? Maybe, maybe not, but different. The Real Book’s chart is like the plot of Moby Dick, with some of the actual words changed.
In its title, The Real Book makes an ironic commentary on the idea of a “fake book,” and also on the idea of copyright itself. It suggests that it has the “real” chords, the chords cool people actually play, and that these chords aren’t the same chords the composer wrote, or a reduced version. Should copyright apply?
You can’t copyright chord changes–WAY too many songs have the same chords, as that link shows. You can copyright a melody, and an arrangement, that is, the specific instruments and harmonies behind a tune. But if the point of your musical practice is commentary or restatement, do you need copyright? What “service” is Boosey & Hawkes collecting payment for?
I am a composer myself, and I fully appreciate copyright protection. But I do agree with Swallow that, had someone approached me 35 years ago about having my tunes in a new, upcoming fake book, I would have gladly said “Yes.” I’m very sure that the ubiquitous nature of The Real Book has ultimately been a benefit for the collective composers represented. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of musicians have learned, performed, and recorded those works that otherwise never would have.
A few years ago, the Hal Leonard musical publishing company saw the writing on the wall and published its own, legal version of The Real Book, calling it the “sixth edition.” It has exactly the same cover and uses a font that almost exactly mimics the handwriting in the original. It does not include April in Paris, I assume because Boosey & Hawkes wanted too much money.
- At least that’s how it sounds to my taste: my wife likes Glee and I have to leave the room when it’s on, because I hate the music so much ↩