Secret, Illegal Music

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:

Gershwins, The Man I Love

And here it is as recorded with Billie Holiday, with a great sax solo from Lester Young

Billie Holiday, The Man I Love

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.

Call me April

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?

Barry Kernfeld’s website includes an email from “B,” one of the original authors of The Real Book. It’s quite interesting on the question of copyright and worth reading. “B” concludes:

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.

  1. 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

21 Comments

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  • Great post. Yeah, it brings back memories. I remember in the 70s in Cleveland we heard about the Real Book, but couldn’t buy one. Then one of our music professors had one in his office and we borrowed it, ran to the copy shop and made a few copies of 30 or 40 tunes that we started learning with a combo I was playing with at the time (we had a regular gig every Sunday at Genesis vegetarian restaurant where we got paid $20/for the whole band, and some really good food!) Then in ’78 I moved to Boston to go to Berklee and bought my copy from a guy (who will remain nameless) who used to sell them out of a box in one of the doorways of the school (where he could stay out of the weather). By that time it was the unofficial text book at Berklee and everybody just expected you to have one.

    As I got to NYC and started playing with a lot of older more experienced guys though, it became apparent that there were a lot of problems with the Real Book (wrong chords, wrong melodies, etc.) and the only way to really learn these tunes was to listen to lots of recordings. But still, it served its purpose to help initiate several generations of younger guys who didn’t grow up with those tunes into learning the standard jazz repertoire.

    I keep a shelf of about 20 or so fake books, which I only occasionally refer to, but it’s nice to have as a reference. If I’m looking for a particular tune, I’ll usually FIRST find a few good recordings, then pull out the books and note any differences, write in the chord changes I hear, etc. To be honest though, I really prefer the books that have the lyrics too.

  • Carl Dershem wrote:

    Nicely written article. Many of those of us a touch younger learned by starting with the Real Book and going from there. I even use it for my students.

    As for the literary parallel, how about the altered version being “Call me … Ishmael.” Just different enough to be suggestive, but true to the original. 🙂

  • Carl:

    “As for the lit­er­ary par­al­lel, how about the altered ver­sion being “Call me … Ish­mael.” Just dif­fer­ent enough to be sug­ges­tive, but true to the orig­i­nal. :)”

    MUCH Better!

  • It’s such Berklee fluffery seeing those irrelevant Swallow and Bley tunes in there along with so many studly standards from important composers. But I guess it’s totally understandable when you consider how it happened.

    And boy does it piss me off reading about the Boosey & Hawkes angle. I don’t even want to talk about it for fear of getting myself upset again.

  • Regarding Ver­non Duke’s April In Paris

    Are you aware how publishing and royalty payments work?

    Have you stopped and considered a songwriters legacy to their heirs and family?
    Song writers and Composers don’t leave children buildings or land they leave them copyrights.

    In your opinion, should Ver­non Duke’s widow, the singer Kay McCracken and his family not inherit any of his copyrights and are part of the “bunch of par­a­sit­i­cal leeches keep mak­ing money from his work”?

  • richard.mcdonough wrote:

    You are right on this. Intellectual property is the most real and the most ripped off.

  • Patrick Ferreri wrote:

    Great article, but I think we ought to make a distinction between the old fake books and the new ones, even aside from the fact that some may be illegal and some may not.

    The earliest fake books were not hand-copied. they were produced by cutting the top staff, of the typical three-stave legit versions of a tune that were published and sold legally.

    The “thief” would then paste all of the thus cut off top staves onto a piece of blank paper, and photo copy what then appeared to be a “lead sheet.” That lead sheet contained the melody, the lyrics, and the chord symbols. The problem was that the chord symbols were about 10 to 25% incorrect. Publishers were deathly afraid to “turn off” any potential customers who strummed ukelele, guitar, or banjo chords. So, they insisted that all chord symbols be “simplified.” One such simplification might be to write Dm6, when the chord is actually a Bm7-5 chord. The theory was that, if the proverbial “old lady ukelele player were to play a simple Dm chord, and thus omit the 6th, it would (at least) not conflict with what her friend Mabel is playing from the two piano staves. In other words, the old lady might play a Bm triad, or Bm7 chord, and think its OK to omit the lowered 5th, and that would not work art all; her F-sharp would grind against Mabel’s F-natural.

    The old fake books present a real challenge to young bass players of today — who actually believe the chord symbols that they read in them. SOME of the newer, legit fake books are much better — because they contain correct chord symbols, and slash-and-bass-note symbols.
    Advice: Unless you really know what you’re doing, stick with using the new, legit fake books — when it comes to the really “old” standard tunes.

  • @Amy – How much do you suppose Vernon Duke’s family receives from sales of his tunes, compared to what the publisher makes on them?

  • Jorge X. Rodriguez wrote:

    ‘Are you aware how pub­lish­ing and roy­alty pay­ments work?…’

    Basically, he who has the most, biggest lawyers wins. That is usually a corporation which had nothing to do with producing the copyrighted music, text or whatever. One of my uncles used to compose pop songs and faithfully send them to various publishers. Some of them were lifted, but my uncle didn’t have the means to sue and he wasn’t a big enough deal to command sympathy or help within the industry. Tough luck. At one point he wanted to combine some of them into a music comedy but couldn’t get the rights to his own music.

    However, even if we restrict the benefits of copyright to the heirs of the composer, how long should we be paying them? Should be still be paying for ‘Sumer is icumen in’ 1000 years after its composition? How can we find all the heirs? Who gets what? Maybe we’d better never play it.

    There’s also the question of how much the composer owes to his predecessors and his cultural context. Vernon Duke composed ‘April In Paris’, but he didn’t invent music, or even the genre it belongs to. The old way of dealing with this was to give the composer a limited shot at collecting some royalties, and then, recognizing the debt of any work of art to the community, to give it back to the public domain. What was wrong with that?

    Incidentally I seem to recall seeing the Real fake book in Vancouver in 1972 and being mightily impressed by it. Is that possible?

  • Jorge, I played briefly in a wedding-reception band that used some kind of published fake book, back in 1964.

    I’m sure there were some band leaders who compiled books of lead sheets on their own, but I remember this guy too well, and he was very much too lazy to have done it on his own.

  • @Stan, about your money division question:

    According to the most common division of the time, the authors (Vernon Duke and lyricist E.Y. Harburg) get 50% and the publisher gets the other 50%. This is in agreement with common retail principles, that retail markup about doubles the manufacturer’s cost. Note that Duke and Harburg split their half, so each gets 25% unless they agreed to some other proportion, regardless of whether the song is played with or without the lyrics. Once again, there may be two different versions of a tune (like Satin Doll, for example) one with lyrics where the lyricist gets a cut, and one without lyrics where the composer(s) get(s) all the author’s portion.

    Buy the New Real Book, published in several volumes by Sher Music. It has consistently the best changes, the right melodies, and proper scholarity with regards to sources. I rarely find bad melodies, chords, or typos in the critical information in any of the Sher Music publications, and they supply commonly-used chord subs. Also, all the composers (yes, and the publishers too!) get their well-deserved cut of the price. Beats the pants off the old, inaccurate Real Book, which is responsible for so many musicians of my age playing wrong melodies and chords on so many tunes.

  • Amy, I suspect that you may not be aware of a) the difference between rival and non-rival goods (see Wikipedia for more details) and b) what copyright is (or at least, was) intended to do.

    The short summary: copyright, or the granting of artificial monopolies to certain individuals, is essentially a tax on the populace to encourage artists to make art that they might not make otherwise. The point of having copyrights expire is to balance the cost of the tax to society with the benefits society receives from the artists.

    The long version of the argument is well explained in William Patry’s Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, which should be required reading for anybody interested in copyright.

  • rob anzellotti wrote:

    An excellent article, and very informed replies. Copyright has a purpose, but how far should it go? Here in Germany, we cannot legally play standards even at jam sessions without prior arrangement and fees paid. The Gema, or copyright police, will even come after the musicians themselves and demand devastating fees. This means that players can only perform music that they write themselves. I suppose it encourages creativity, but would Miles Davis or John Coltrane have got to their levels of perfection if they were held to these constraints? File sharing of current tunes is something I will not defend, but I think jazz musicians ought to be able to play a fifty-year-old Vernon Duke tune in a club without risking legal repercussions.

    Scientific patents expire after so many years. Why is it that music copyright is allowed to go on almost indefinitely?

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  • Justin Lees wrote:

    my question is for the serious jazz players…….why are so many jazz tunes actually bad for real…….in other words
    melodies that do not fit the accompanying changes…….and i am not talking about mistakes……I am talking about serious compositional flaws that people seem to ignore…..( and yes I am a serious jazz player who knows what I am talking about….if anyone responds….I will list some examples…..

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  • I would to pay for an old Fake Book

  • I just learned tonight that Hal Leonard – for years – has been publishing LEGAL editions of the classic Real Books. (On gigs, most of us would bring copies of I, II and III.)

    Problems ensued, though. We were working from books II and III. Some songs were omitted/added in the new legal books. Some songs were in different keys (?!). Some had different arrangements…AABBA instead of AABA for example.

    A lot of work for tips, man.

  • Wesley Parish wrote:

    In relation to post mortem copyright extensions I wrote a little story on what happens when the dead authors, composers, etc, actually do want to get paid.
    You can find it here:

    Zombie Copyright Extensions Unlimited
    http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/10063/20160504-0242/www.antisf.com.au/the-stories/zombie-copyright-extensions-unlimited.html

    Now when the dead composers actually send zombies around to collect on publishers who underpay them, I’ll believe the copyright law as it stands, not before.

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