Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

Ah, the illicit thrill of sidling up to the shopkeeper and asking if he had any (wink wink) jazz chord books... Nah, but we've got fork handles...

Ah, the illicit thrill of sidling up to the shopkeeper and asking if he had any (wink wink) jazz chord books… “You’re a drummer aren’t you?” “How did you know?” “This is an ironmonger’s, mate. We’ve got fork handles…”

Everybody has the Real Book, right? As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my current copy increasingly resembles confetti. I’m talking about the old one – the “fifth edition”. The illegal one. Even if you don’t have the book, you’re bound to have some charts copied from it.

The old Real Book is essentially a collection of a load of people’s private transcriptions that leaked out and went public.

Some of the tunes are really just historical curios – fusion tunes that people were into at the time, but no one really bothers with anymore.

Some of the charts have to have been taken from original session parts. Some of the composers were possibly even complicit, perhaps taking the view that if their tunes were going to be played, they might as well be played properly. It was a piece of counterculture (and later “under the counter” culture) rebellion and it’s still going strong 40-odd years later.

Faking it: just like a jazz musician

Meg Ryan faking it: just like a jazz musician

It’s supposed to have got its name as a counterblast to the term “fake book”. To “fake” a tune used to refer to the practice of cobbling together a performance from just the top line melody and chord changes (ie no arrangement). This has passed out of common parlance now as far as I’m aware, and anyway that’s pretty much what jazz musicians do all the time. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone…

There was a problem though, because whether legal or not, most fake books were… well, inaccurate, sometimes comically so. When you’re a bit longer in the tooth you learn to “interpret” dodgy charts, but it’s a bit of a hindrance for a beginner to be starting from the wrong hymn sheet.

Rumours abound about who did most of the work on the Real Book, and to this day no-one seems to know who has actually ever printed and distributed it. The only thing that can be said with confidence is that the book came out of Berklee in the 1970s. It was also followed by two equally illegal sequels from other bootleggers.

While I have the greatest sympathy for the copyright of the original artists, I think the publishers rather brought this on themselves. To quote John Voigt (Berklee’s music librarian), “the only material available in print then was crap”. Some of it still is, but things are far better than they were – and I really think we all have the Real Book to thank for that. It took some time, but the bootleggers eventually forced the publishers to up their game.

I used to buy a lot of sheet music. Once went to the trouble of ordering an official copy of John Lewis’ Django from the publishers. Several pounds and two weeks later, the one-page leadsheet arrived complete with the official little red sticker – and it was, to borrow the Voigtism, crap.

The original: but no, that's an Abm7 there...

The original (complete with coffee cup stain): but no, that’s an Abm7 there…

The venerable old Real Book had loads of errors, and some of this is down to mishearing, choice of one version over another (don’t forget that jazzers reharmonise), some down to slack editing (it does have an errata section, but nobody ever bothers reading that). The book did, however, mostly contain the chord changes that jazz musicians actually play (to the tunes they most often play). Rather than simplified, outdated or just plain wrong harmony and utterly irrelevant battery-farmed piano arrangements produced by copyists and editors who’d never played a jazz gig in their lives.

It’s interesting that the internet has perpetuated many of the idiosyncrasies of the early “fake books”. Nowadays you can Google just about any popular song and instantly find a page with chords and lyrics spaced out as text.

Beware. They’re mostly submitted by amateur guitarists and often display a, shall we say, patchy grasp of functional harmony and bassline. Or just cloth ears – you’d be amazed how wrong people can get simple triadic pop harmony…

If you need to figure out a tune in a hurry, by all means Google it, but treat what you find with healthy scepticism. Regard it as a starting point – as a rule, your ears are right and the guy on the other end of the internet is wrong.


You can’t copyright a chord progression any more than you can copyright gravity. The Real Book itself and the concept of it have been implemented in lots of software recently, but by far the most popular in my experience is the iRealBook app. (It’s the only reason I own an iPhone, although I gather there is now an Android version available.)

Basically, if you’ve got a reasonable ear for melody or are just going to be comping, what’s not to love about carrying the chords for thousands of tunes on your phone? Not just jazz tunes either. Backing a singer? Transpose the chart in a second. It even does a not too horrible job of automatic rhythm accompaniment in a range of styles (good enough for practice purposes).

Get your phone settings right on the gig though – not cool to stuff up the bridge on a fast tune because some tosser randomly calls you about payment protection insurance… Happened to me the other night.


Anyway, publishers have caught on and smartened up their act. You can now buy hundreds of legit “Real Books” – Vocal ones, Rock ones, Country ones, Ellington ones, Christmas ones, etc, etc.

Some are very good. Sher’s New Real Book series (3 volumes) is very accurate and often contains extra detail about voicings and arrangements from famous recordings. And a few years ago Hal Leonard commandeered the old Real Book franchise by issuing copyright-legal lookalikes under the rubric of “Sixth Edition”.

The first volume was a bit of a disappointment, primarily because of the omission of some vital tunes and the addition of some makeweight ones (I don’t know what, for instance, Patsy Cline’s Crazy is doing in a jazz fakebook, and I gather Teenage Dirtbag appears in a later volume). But the series now runs to 5 volumes, most of the earlier omissions have been made good and just about every jazz tune, or tune that is remotely regarded as “jazzy”, has been covered. Dropping £100 for 2,000+ accurate leadsheets seems like fair economics to me, and it means there’s not much justification left for being illegal anymore.

"Just off to the gig, darling" "You know you can get tablets for that?"

“Just off to the gig, darling” “You know you can get tablets for that?”

Since the future for fakebooks is almost certainly going to be tablet-shaped (if that future isn’t already here), the question of which tune is in which book is unlikely to be much of an issue for long. Of course, the bootlegging issue comes full circle here – publishers understandably aren’t keen on distributing the books as PDFs, but someone will get round to it. Eventually someone with a lot of rainy afternoons to spare and some editing software will crunch the whole lot into one file with a master index and share it, if they haven’t already.

I take the view that now the publishing industry has finally got round to giving me what I actually need, I’m happy to pay. I’m also happy to then go and find convenient PDF versions of the books I own  (I’d do the scanning myself, but someone already has). Because I’m not going to carry 8 books to every gig on the off-chance that someone wants to hear a great Bud Powell tune that missed the publishers’ cut until volume 5…

Anyway, when a jazzer of my generation talks about the Real Book, they mean the original – in all its flawed, underground, punchy, scruffy, fusiony, hippie, illegal glory. And the old Real Books, for good or ill, do contain the core repertoire.

Some would argue they’ve defined the repertoire, even stultified it. Some would go further and perhaps argue that they’ve even degraded musicianship because you’re supposed to nobly suffer to learn to hear harmony from scratch.

But, for now at least, the battered remnants of the old and new testaments (old RB 1 & 2) still sit on the top of the piano at my jam session every week. They seem to be needed less and less, but still they sit there.

PS Note to Hal Leonard and Sher: please publish and maintain a master index. One of the unexpected benefits of the illegal books was that the charts were visually distinctive between volumes, so experienced musicians instinctively knew which volume to go to for which tune. Standardisation of “look and feel” hasn’t helped here!

PPS Thanks to Eric, who pointed out to me that the original version of this post seemed to be endorsing copyright infringement, which wasn’t my intention. My main contention was and is that this illegal book came about because the publishers weren’t doing their job. It may be hard to appreciate these days, but back in the day there simply wasn’t a practical legal alternative.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in c) Musicianship, e) Rants & Ramblings, i) Reviews

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Books for Sale
...appetising young books for sale... Pents book is recommended reading on Gary Burton's Berklee course.

%d bloggers like this: