The History of the Real Book

Excerpted from:

For more than 40 years, the Real Book has been the go-to resource for jazz musicians playing jazz standards and classics from the Great American Songbook. You’ll find this ubiquitous tome on music stands the world over, from club and “society” gigs to practice rooms and jam sessions. This is its story.

In 1975, a few students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, tired of the illegible and somewhat irrelevant fake books available to music students at the time, set about transcribing popular jazz tunes pertinent to the time into handwritten charts. Riffing on the title of a popular Cambridge street paper called the Real Paper and the concept of taking “fake” books to the next level, the Real Book was born.


“Black market” Real Book, circa 1984.

“The book was not conceived to finance our education,” says one of the Real Book’s anonymous co-creators, in an email published at the web site of jazz educator Barry Kernfeld. “It was first and foremost an attempt to reinvent the concept of what a fake book was, to raise the bar for all such books to come.”

From the time the Real Book creators first walked into the school’s lobby holding their copies fresh from the printer, the book became a runaway success. Word of this new compendium spread quickly in music circles, and demand grew exponentially, with the Real Book finding its way into the hands of jazz musicians all over the world.

“We knew we could have made a pile of money had we continued,” says ‘anonymous,’ “but we weren’t in the business of selling fake books—we were headed for careers as musicians—and we were definitely concerned of the legal ramifications.”

RealBook2Concerned enough, in fact, to visit a couple of copyright experts in Boston in an attempt to legitimize the book; however, in the end they found it cost-prohibitive and proceeded to “publish” the book at local copy shops.

However honorable the creators’ intentions may have been with regard to copyright law and royalty payments, their Real Book was nonetheless illegal. Not surprisingly, as demand grew, legions of bootleggers began making their own copies and selling them “black market” style on street corners near music schools or from under the counter at local music shops—a practice that would go on for nearly 30 years, as the Real Book eventually became the unofficially best-selling jazz songbook of all time.

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About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra) a GOLD sax quartet, and enjoy time with family and friends.
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