When I was an undergraduate student I bought my first Real Book. This was back in the day before the legal copy was published by Hal Leonard. There was a music store local to my college that carried them, but they weren’t on display. You had to ask for them and they would go in the back and bring one out for you. Later, in graduate school, the “Real Book guy” would swing through once every year or so and unload a bunch of books from his car and sell them off to music students. I still have copies of those books.
I had heard before that the Real Book was something put together by students at Berkley College of Music, but not learned the complete story behind them until recently.
In the mid-70s, Steve Swallow began teaching at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, an elite private music school that boasted one of the first jazz performance programs in the country. Swallow had only been teaching at Berklee for a few months when two students approached him about a secret project. “I keep referring them to them as ‘the two guys who wrote the book,’ because…they swore me to secrecy. They made me agree that I would not divulge their names,” explains Swallow. The “two guys” wanted to make a new fake book, one that actually catered to the needs of contemporary jazz musicians and reflected the current state of jazz. And they needed Swallow’s help.
That book is a double edged sword. It’s a good starting point for jazz students to learn tunes and it was the first popular fake book that updated the tunes to include contemporary jazz standards. But there are many mistakes in a lot of the tunes and often they don’t reflect how most jazz musicians perform the tunes. These days it’s more common to see jazz musicians carrying around a tablet with scans of fake books or the iRealB app instead.
Learn more about the Real Book and some of the history behind fake books on the 99% Invisible podcast, episode 438.